Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (1971) is a book of political philosophy forced on hapless undergraduates in our institutes of higher education. Rawls employs a ‘veil of ignorance’ — he derives principles of social justice by placing everyone into a state of ignorance as to what hand they will be dealt later in life. You may be born into wealth or poverty, into a loving or an abusive family, into a rich or poor country. Rawls argues you chose principles of justice minimizing distress on the least advantaged individuals because once the veil of ignorance is lifted you may turn out to be disadvantaged. “Whatever you do for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you do it for me.”
Rawls’ theory is not only wrong it’s dangerous.
The Hand We’re Dealt
I argue the hand I was dealt is intrinsically fair. Key to life is knowin’ when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. Rawls counters that knowing when to hold and fold is part-and-parcel of the hand you’re dealt. I argue that I forgo today’s consumption to invest for tomorrow. Rawls counters this prudence is part of the hand you’re dealt. I say certain individuals have greater willpower. Again in Rawlsian terms it’s part of the package. No matter what choice I make, if it turns out to be advantageous, it gets subsumed into the hand I was dealt. If I’m advantaged then it’s only because I was dealt a good hand.
Rawls constructs a shape-shifting, protean, logical formula into which no reality can be inserted. If that were its only fault! Alas this ‘theory of justice’ serves to confuse the ignorant and gullible, and becomes the banner under which redistributive jihad is waged. It’s a dangerous idea, much like Marxism, used by the demagogue for his or her advantage. First dismiss or devalue anything that looks like individual initiative. Your advantage came from playing on an uneven field and we are justified in redistributing your winnings to those who were disadvantaged during the game. Second, place yourself in charge of deciding which goods are to be purchased with the redistributed wealth. Suppliers most supportive of redistributive policies move to the front of the line.
The Veil of Ignorance
Let’s go back to the veil of ignorance. If I’m offered $1 million as a baseline for poverty but I’ll have to spend my life in chains, then I’ll pass. Most people would do poorly in making rational choices amongst a hierarchy of goods (e.g., money versus liberty), and it is impossible to select even a minimal common set of goods once you get beyond the most primitive societies. As has been shown repeatedly in classical economics, individuals cannot even choose between varying baskets of consumer goods.
Of course all people want health insurance!
Not if it means I have to drive a Buick instead of a Porsche.
Who’s to say what a bad hand is? Suppose I’m born into abject poverty but with wonderful parents or a very strong faith. Many a saint has gone off into the world with only sandals and a cloak, and not even a spare cloak. A colleague of mine describes a visit with his son to the home of a famous author: lush gardens, opulent furniture, an indoor pool, a well-furnished gaming room.
Son: “I wish he were my father.”
Father: “Me too!”
We redistribute parents? Faith? Of course not. We rely on godless bureaucrats and intellectuals to place a dollar value on these advantages, and tax accordingly.
The Cultural Basis of Justice
Rawls ignores the cultural basis of justice in a society. In Law for the elephant: property and social behavior on the Overland Trail (1980) we see a slice of American history, in the absence of any legal authority, where respect for property was sacrosanct even to the point of starvation or death from dehydration. Individuals placed a much higher value on morals and religious beliefs than on material goods, even in the most desperate situations. Charity on the Trail was practiced in abundance, but not mandated charity. How do you do charity when forced?
You’re over-extending Rawls’ theory. All he intended was a yardstick to judge between competing theories of justice! Whichever theory best raises the fortunes of the bottom quartile of society is the one we should chose.
In that case we’re done. Over time (generations) raw capitalism wins. Redistributive practices have not worked and are hereby abolished. But of course that’s not the answer Rawlsians want to hear. They focus solely on quartiles of income, with the simple notion that taking from the top quartile and giving to the bottom quartile leads to a more just society. It’s evident right?
Rawls’ theory in summary.
- Its practitioners take a static view of society, ignoring what is needed to improve standards of living (e.g., labor productivity)
- When it gives an answer not wanted, it morphs
- It’s an attractive proposition for feeble minds, thus dangerous in the hands of the demagogue
Were it not so dangerous I wouldn’t give it the publicity of this article. But weak minds teach at many political philosophy departments in our major universities, calling for this refutation.