Review: A Theory of Justice by John Rawls
Part of an Ongoing Book Review Series
John Rawls, in his philosophical work, A Theory of Justice, attempts to address issues of fairness and argues for a liberal democratic welfare state. He uses a sophisticated or convoluted, depending on one’s interpretation, thought experiment to get to his essential thesis. He maintains that mere equality of access to opportunity is not enough to achieve fairness, nor is a simple social safety-net to help the least advantaged. Instead, Rawls asserts that the most advantaged—whether their advantages are due to wealth, genetics, inherent talent, what have you—must contribute their gifts in a way that will most benefit the least advantaged.
Those of us who believe strongly in liberal principles of democratic safeguards and the protection of rights are likely to be taken, and even convinced, by what Rawls has to offer. There is little mystery as to why, then, Rawls has proven popular, particularly among progressively-minded philosophers. Closer inspection, however, reveals cracks in the foundations of Rawls’s theory of justice.
He argues that there are two stages or factors involved and the first include the establishment of “equal liberty for all” and “an equal right to take part in, and to determine the outcome of, the constitutional process that establishes the laws with which they are to comply.” The second tier of the process involves a redistribution of wealth from the most advantaged to the least, according to that which would benefit the least advantaged the most. There are two caveats to this, however. First, the redistribution can never come at the cost of one’s rights of equal liberty. Those are given priority and protection. Second, redistribution may not occur if it is found that not doing so would be the best benefit to all.
This liberal democratic welfare state which Rawls describes is illustrated through his concept of the original position. This original position is a thought experiment where one imagines all participants of a society existing in a sort of void together prior to their entrance into the known material world. The concept involves considering the following: if all members of society have no memory, do not know what fate will befall them when they enter the world, and all are disinterested parties who similarly do not know the fate of anyone else (thus no alliances could be formed, because each person is equal in the randomness of their outcome) that this state of being is essentially one behind a veil of ignorance. Thus, each person would choose a social system which would be the fairest (and therefore, most just) to each and every person. It is from this original position behind the veil of ignorance, Rawls claims, that this model of a liberal democratic welfare state emerges.
It is, without a doubt, an absolutely fascinating concept and Rawls should be commended for the level of thought and theorizing that he must have employed to achieve the idea. It is a reasonable attempt at making Rawls’s central argument that justice means fairness visible to the mind’s eye, and addresses the concern head-on. The attempt to design a new structure of society based on fairness, as well as democratic principles and liberty, is as noble as it is ambitious. Much as I applaud Rawls for his effort, however, there are flaws around the periphery as well as at the center of his entire premise.
First, examining his original position, it is reasonable to ask if one who is entirely disinterested, with no memory—therefore no experience to draw wisdom from—and no frame of reference to anything, any place, or anyone, can have an opinion whatsoever about themselves, their future, or the health of their community. Rawls expects wisdom and deep introspection from beings who have had nothing of which such elements are derived. It is a fast and loose interpretation of humanity (or, for that matter, thought itself), and this writer doesn’t buy it. Furthermore, Rawls makes plain that these individuals in the original position are disinterested parties. He assumes that self-interest is somehow innately flawed or negative, yet gives no reason as to why. This reveals a bias on his part that he not only does not defend, or at least explain, but doesn’t even note. It speaks to a prejudicial point of view, which is itself ironic since it is a lack of prejudice that Rawls is attempting to speak to. There have been many philosophers who have clearly stated their advocacy of the benefits of enlightened self-interest, and Rawls’s decision to not even address the issue causes one to wonder if he exists in his own echo chamber, thus not predicting credible and reasonable critiques of his thesis from other political philosophers.
The issue of property is another matter to contend with in Rawls’s Theory of Justice. His model claims to give freedom to basic economic institutions and implies some level of free and open market economies, but it doesn’t in fact square with his assertion that income and wealth are to be distributed equally. Of course, he does offer the following exception: “unless an unequal distribution is to everyone’s advantage.” This is actually a rather bizarre claim, as it intends to give a nod to concepts of personal ownership, yet leaves the door open to confiscation. It is not exactly explained who decides when and what gets redistributed or what recourse one might have to challenge it. What kind of due process, for example, should exist to determine that the confiscation of one’s property was supposedly just in Rawls’s model? He does not say, and his silence on the matter makes much of what he says suspect. The more one unravels this part of Rawls’s thesis, the less convincing any of it remains. Rawls makes a grand assumption that the community will be in agreement about when things are to be redistributed and when they will not. The implication, of course, is that it is a matter for the majority to decide—as Rawls claims all of this falls into a liberal democratic system. What protection is there for the minority against the tyranny of the majority? Rawls has no answer for this. What exactly is the rubric applied to assess if something is to be redistributed? Rawls, again, has no answer.
“What kind of due process, for example, should exist to determine that the confiscation of one’s property was supposedly just in Rawls’s model? He does not say, and his silence on the matter makes much of what he says suspect. The more one unravels this part of Rawls’s thesis, the less convincing any of it remains.”
Perhaps most crucial of all is whether Rawls considers property ownership a right of liberty. He claims to at times, and then contradicts himself. If income is something that can be redistributed, how is that not a taking of one’s liberty? One can argue the semantics of money made from investments, etc., but Rawls argues that income (which is, by definition, wages or a salary tendered for work given) can be taken away. Is it his premise that income is not property? Again, silence. Is this not a violation of one’s liberty? If Rawls does not believe that private ownership is a right of liberty, how can he make that defense? If one does not have sovereign power over one’s possessions, what liberty is there? It is here that Rawls’s thesis crumbles. Drawing from the plain language of his writings, not inferences or wild interpretations, it can be readily seen that Rawls either does not believe private property to be a right of liberty, or he is making the claim that he does believe it and is contradicting himself when he then calls for redistribution.
Rawls is an interesting political thinker and it is understandable why his work has been so influential. He is able to take ideas and explain them in a way that is compelling. Concepts such as the original position, the veil of ignorance, and others are fascinating and worth reflecting on. However, he fails to address anything that reasonably counters his assumptions. He dismisses enlightened self-interest out of hand, somehow assumes that disinterested and dispassionate parties with no memory or agenda would have the wisdom to make a rational decision, and wants to simultaneously give private property and market-based economics the veneer of liberty rights yet assert that property, including income, can be taken away. Taken away, that is, by majority vote or in some other arbitrary fashion (with no thought given to legal recourse for those who have had their property taken unjustly). He assumes property will never be taken away improperly and that the will of the majority is automatically the correct course.
Ultimately, the level of naivety in his assertions and assumptions are astonishing. Rawls is very interesting indeed. He fascinates at first glance, and confounds and frustrates exponentially with each successive look.
[James M. Masnov is a writer, historian, and lecturer. His book, History Killers and Other Essays by an Intellectual Historian, is available here.]