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Reply to Wilkinson

Will Wilkinson observes that "the point of the difference principle in Rawls" is to ensure that "the system benefits everyone, and not only those with the most power to ensure that it benefits them," since "a system of institutions requires that everyone living within it have reason to support it, and to comply with the terms of association it lays down, if it is to be well-ordered and stable."

Now this certainly sounds like something that Rawls might say. But in practice, it's not clear to me that it ends up differing very interestingly or importantly from my own, admittedly somewhat brassier and tackier, summary: in settling institutional arrangements, the interests of worse off groups trump the interests of better off groups. Notoriously, Rawls gerrymanders the original position in such a way that the parties behind the veil of ignorance can only proceed as if they were all going to end up among the worst off. So maximizing the minimum becomes the overriding goal.

Wilkinson suggests that he would not take things as far as Rawls does: instead of the interests of the worst off group acting as an absolute trump, perhaps they would merely count for some multiple greater than one compared to the interests of better off groups.

But the question remains, why should anybody in the real world who's not a member of the worst-off group of all buy into any of this to begin with? I mean, if you start off with a liberal moral sensibility - i.e., a moral sensibility that is deeply disturbed by the undeserved inequalities that the world deals out in such profusion - then sure: you'll find Rawls' project compelling. But if, like me, you don't - well, then, you won't.

And this hardly means adopting the viewpoint of Thrasymachus - that "justice is the will of the stronger." It just means caring more about your own life, and the lives of those close to you, than you care about far-away people whom you don't know from Adam. I.e., it means being a normal human being, as shaped by the evolutionary aeons.

As for "justice?" What is justice? I dunno. But it sure as heck ain't fairness.

Finally: Wilkinson mentions "fundamental rights to physical movement and voluntary association." And I'm sure he will have anticipated my reply: terrific - but not on my dime. Fact is, the "fundamental rights" of illegal immigrants to the U.S. are now held to include not only "physical movement and voluntary association," but also use of publicly funded roads, publicly funded healthcare, publicly funded schools, etc. - all adding up to much more than they pay in taxes. And he knows as well as I do that there's not a damn thing that anybody can do about it.

P.S.: The claim that a stable "system of institutions requires that everyone living within it have reason to support it" is a charming conceit, and, as I say, sounds like something that Rawls might say, but isn't it pretty obviously false? Aren't there slave-owning polities, for example, that survived for many more centuries than ours has, so far?

But perhaps they weren't well-ordered. Who can say?

Comments (9)

What is justice? I dunno. But it sure as heck ain't fairness.
Since fairness is a synonym, I would guess that is not a very strong point.

On Rawls, I doubt his philosophy was meant to apply to non-citizens. To participate in the thought experiment it is assumed you have a vote in deciding the resulting system that affects the unknown version of you behind the veil. Under Wilkinson's view you can jump ship, leaving the veil where your own vote is consequential and moving to where it is not.

Rawls' is also a development of social contract theory which is supposed to require unanimous support. Therefore anyone here, or in an Islamic country for that matter, can exercise their liberum veto, and consider it done.

Step2: if Aaron is born with a hare-lip, while Bertha is born with fashion-plate good looks, then that may well be unfair. But it is certainly not unjust.

So justice and fairness are not synonymous.

Obviously, Wilkinson is trying to extend Rawls' view to cover the basic structure of *international* as well as *national* institutional arrangements.

I don't you need to go so deeply anti-Rawlsian to rebut Wilkinson. (not that you shouldn't!).

Will needs more than Rawls to make his argument go through. Will believes in a strong right to property -- he does not accept that the least advantaged have claims on the goods of the advantaged. So why does he believe that citizens of least advantaged nations have a right to citizenship in the most advantaged nations? Because he believes the nation has no standing as a moral entity. As far as moral weight goes nation-states are unfortunate delusions: we didn't consent to them, they have no moral standing, they shouldn't exist.

Now, I incline towards a defense of nation-states on consequentialist grounds (nations states make us better off, thus they should exist). But let's be generous, and grant Will his enormously controversial major premise: states are unjust, and in an ideal world should not exist, and should be replaced by truly consensual organizations. Even with this stipulation, it doesn't follow that we should adopt the immigration policies we would have if nation states didn't exist. Just because an institution is unjust doesn't mean we have moral warrant to act as if isn't there -- we need to weigh costs and benefits of our actions in the world we have.

Here's a case. Let's suppose we live in an unjust-according-to-Will, but democratic and quasi-libertarian state. Must we allow immigration of deeply illiberal people who will vote for unjust policies and move our society yet further away from the libertarian moral ideal? I think Will would answer yes to this. But it is not clear why anyone else, even any other libertarian, needs to agree with him.

Ben A/baa:

"Placet, placet, placet,
optime, optime, optime!"

What can I say, except that I agree, whole-heartedly?

Your final paragraph is the key: *this* is the problem to which Mr. Wilkinson (much as I admire his stuff, and often as I agree with it) really needs to face up.

If Aaron is born with a hare-lip, while Bertha is born with fashion-plate good looks, then that may well be unfair. But it is certainly not unjust.

Since I keep seeing that same type of counterexample from other people, I am going to take time to dispute it. Rawls assumes that disadvantages, however they are defined, are innate to the population. So the sense that the cosmos is unfair is already a given. He views justice as a response to those differences, a treatment instead of a cure for undeserved inequities. His concept is based upon securing opportunity for the talents a person has, not defining a person based on their disadvantages. For example, it is unjust and unfair to deny Aaron a job he is more than qualified to do simply because of his disadvantage. Finally, as a matter of general usage in English, the dictionary and thesaurus are definitive about those words being synonyms.

Obviously, Wilkinson is trying to extend Rawls' view to cover the basic structure of *international* as well as *national* institutional arrangements.

Good point, but only states are authorized to make and break international arrangements. To the extent Rawls is grounded in Kantian universal principles, they could be applied to each citizen of each state. That still does not give the individual trump power over the state's role in making arrangements with other states.

I understood Steve's distinct uses of "fair" and "just" without any trouble. The former refers to "acts" of nature; the latter to acts of men. An appeal to usage can't make the distinction invalid, even if one objects to the particular terms used. There does seem to be something in Rawls' theory (though I haven't studied it very closely) which depends on ignoring or conflating the difference.

I think Step2 has a point here about applying Rawls's ideas to international relations. Here I guess I'm giving up the opportunity to write a brilliant free-standing post on this point. :-) But the citizens of different countries really aren't part of the same "system" at all, it seems to me. Nor should they be, unless we really do want a single government for the whole world. And what a great thing that would be from a libertarian perspective, right?


You’re too kind. :)

I think we are of the same mind about Wilkinson. Much of his writing is just tremendously good. On immigration, for whatever reason, he won’t face up to the difficulties of his position, and occasionally retreats to an unattractive moralism. His performance is all the more puzzling as some of the same tropes he deploys against immigration critics are straight out of the anti-market left handbook. No doubt he finds it tiresome when opponents of private property throw up the poor of the 3rd world as if this constitutes some sort of argument against the market system. And he surely would think intolerable any (veiled) suggestion that proponents of strong property rights must be selfish or racist. Immigration critics don’t deserve this treatment.

It would have been easier at the outset for him to simply say "citizens of democratic states have no right to determine the composition of their polity” and confront the implications of that statement. Of course, one can reject this position (which, truly, is a bizarre one) and still favor liberalized immigration policy. I probably fall into that camp myself.

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