Andrew Robinson - Theory Blog

Monday, November 15, 2004

RAWLS ON INEQUALITY (Notes - work in progress)


“Equality” is supposed to be one of the fundamental characteristics of Rawls’s conception of the person. He does not believe in unequal moral worth among citizens, maintaining that all citizens are of equal worth (PL 280). However, it does not take a particularly close reading of Rawls to establish that he does not believe in substantive equality. The difference principle is formulated so as to permit inequalities in certain circumstances. Thus, Rawls’s commitment to equality is basically a model of equality-in-alterity: people are to be satisfied with being “conceived as” equal even while being forced to submit to inegalitarian social structures. Hence, treating others as equals means treating them in accord with principles ‘we would choose’ in the original position (TJ 337). He admits at one point that his theory is not about equality, but about what he terms ‘a natural focal point between the claims of efficiency and equality’ (JAFAR 123). Further, the way in which Rawls justifies equality is not ethical but practical, and it implicitly relies on a naturalisation of capitalist ways of thinking and acting.

Indeed, the “necessity” of inequality is usually a matter of mere assertion. Rawls simply states, for instance, that the basic structure ‘most likely permits significant social and economic inequalities’. ‘Such inequalities, we may assume, are inevitable, or else necessary or highly advantageous in maintaining effective social cooperation’, either as ‘incentives’ or for other reasons (PL 270), the reasons also including a claim that ‘they are required to maintain and to run social arrangements’ and another that ‘they are a way to put resources in the hands of those who can make the best social use of them’ CW 257). Rawls claims, therefore, that he ‘recognizes the need for inequalities in social and economic organization’ (JAFAR 68). ‘The basic structure of society is bound to encourage certain kinds of plan… by rewarding its members for contributing to the common good’ in just ways (TJ 373). Hence, he asks, not whether to support inequalities, but only how to regulate and govern them (PL 271), how to ‘adjust’ them and how to justify their effects - including accidental and arbitrary effects, and limitations of ambitions and hopes (CW 257-8). He assumes in advance that they can somehow be justified. One should notice how Rawls’s commitments to individuals are subordinate to his idealised model of society: claims to distributions extend from social concerns, not individual ones, and therefore involves a subordination of individuals to an overarching system implicitly established as a transcendent good. Furthermore, inequalities are not limited to those in wealth and income, but also cover the other primary goods, including ‘powers and prerogatives of office’ (=political domination) and ‘social bases of self-respect’ (=status inequality) (CW 362-3), though Rawls’s discussions tend to focus on inequalities in income and wealth. The formulation of the difference principle, which assumes the existence of a “worst-off” group, reflects a naturalisation of inequalities: there must be inequalities for a group to be “worst-off” (c.f. Wildcat ABC of Bosses). The difference principle is supposed to put the burden of proof on those who benefit from inequalities, but also to permit such cases as are justified, and ‘often there is’ a justification (CW 49). Indeed, there are ‘indefinitely many ways’ inequalities may be justified under the difference principle (TJ 56). Although he prefers that inequalities ‘should not be excessive in practice’, in theory he ‘permits indefinitely large inequalities in return for small gains to the less favored’ (TJ 470), and admits that the difference principle may even permit inequalities which in practice are too great for stability (JAFAR 127). Rawls accepts that in a just ‘property-owning democracy’, there will still be large advantages to the so-called ‘entrepreneurial class’ (i.e. capitalists) over workers, ‘even when the social injustices which now exist are removed’. For instance, capitalists will need extra money as incentives to efficiency and innovation (TJ 68). He also assumes that organisations with hierarchies must exist, and therefore, that he needs a principle to govern them (TJ 53). He does not specify the extent or specificities of inequalities he justifies, suggesting that the difference principle is to a certain extent ‘pure procedural’: any outcome which results from the application of the principle is just and helps the worst-off (PL 282), provided it falls within certain limits set by stability and “excusable envy” (PL 284). (Inequality is also not to be such that the poor lack a sense of self-worth - see TJ 92).

The difference principle is at its very basis dubious: it involves borderline doublespeak, via the idea that inequalities can benefit the worst-off (or, in some passages, benefit everyone). (This idea is necessary to present any capitalistic system as a “social whole”, but it is dubious, because any inequality is by definition to the advantage of the better-off. I hesitate to call it doublespeak, because Rawls’s claim seems to be that the same outcome could not be distributed differently - in other words, that only a particular distribution permits a maximised outcome at all. This is not quite doublespeak, but it depends on a string of problematic psychological assumptions). The difference principle would ‘permit inequalities in return for contributions that are for the benefit of all’ (TJ 478), and it creates a situation where ‘everyone is benefited by social cooperation’ (TJ 154). The difference principle ‘arranges social and economic inequalities so that everyone benefits’, ensuring that inequalities ‘must be to everyone’s advantage’ (TJ 53). ‘[T]he higher expectations of those better situated are just only if they work as part of a scheme which improves the expectations of the least advantaged members of society’; hence, one does not help the better-off unless by doing so one helps the worst-off (TJ 65). Such inequalities are justified because ‘the capacity of the less fortunate members of society would be even less were they not to accept the existing inequalities’ allowed by the difference principle (TJ 179). If the worse-off are better off, if the equalities ‘make everyone better off’, then ‘why not permit them?’ (TJ 130-1). ‘If certain inequalities of wealth and differences in authority would make everyone better off than in the hypothetical starting situation’ of perfect equality, the inequalities are justified (TJ 55). The difference principle would ‘restrict economic and social inequalities to those in everyone’s interests’ (TJ 26-7).

Certain ideas, such as the necessity of “incentives”, are needed to make sense of the idea of “inequalities which increase the wellbeing of the worst-off” (so that “helping the better-off helps the worst-off”). Indeed, this idea implicitly assumes a split within the self, since otherwise, any inequality is by definition to the disadvantage of the worst-off. “Necessities” rather than justice provide the main excuse. ‘Now since we are regarding citizens as free and equal… the obvious starting point is to suppose that all other social primary goods, and in particular income and wealth, should be equal: everyone should have an equal share. But society must take organizational requirements and economic efficiency into account. So it is unreasonable to stop at equal division. The basic structure should allow inequalities so long as these improve everyone’s situation, including that of the least advantaged… [T]hose who have gained more must do so on terms justifiable to those who have gained the least’ (CW 262). ‘A political conception of justice must take into account the requirements of social organization and economic efficiency. The parties [in the original position] would accept inequalities in income and wealth when these work effectively to improve everyone’s situation starting from equal division… [T]hose who gain more are to do so on terms acceptable to those who gain less, and in particular to those who gain least’ (JAFAR 123). One could also add other passages where Rawls expressly links the difference principle to efficiency (e.g. PL 368) or attacks equality as failing to take into account ‘economic efficiency and the requirements of organization and technology’ (TJ 130-1; this reifies the use of technology). The failure to take account of ‘organizational requirements and economic efficiency’ makes equality ‘unreasonable’ (PL 282), and Rawls specifically advocates ‘functional social and economic inequalities’ (LN 35). This assumes that so-called “organizational requirements and economic efficiency” are genuinely universal goods, justifiable to the least-advantaged as much as to the more advantaged. Belief in such capitalist ideas becomes part of the regulating boundary of the inside: rejecting such a belief puts one beyond the sphere of the “reasonable”. On another occasion, the anathema is instead irrationality. ‘If that guarantee [i.e. of equality] means that income and wealth are to be distributed equally, it is irrational: it does not allow society to meet the requirements of social organization and efficiency’ (JAFAR 151). One should note in this passage how Rawls sees “society” as some kind of entity, which must have its hands untied so it can look after itself. It, not people, is at the centre of Rawls’s theory. Issues of practical possibility are at the very forefront of Rawls’s discussions of economics (e.g. TJ 235), despite being at the periphery of his attitude to individual ethics and social action. The definition of the functioning of the capitalist economy as “everyone’s interest” is not a neutral statement of fact, but a particular - biased - “hegemonic” gesture (in the Laclauian sense). Indeed, it implies a blunting of class conflict so as to emphasise this supposedly universal good: the difference principle would be an agreement not to enter into redistribution in any case where it no longer benefits “everyone” (JAFAR 124). Rawls specifically states that he wants to avoid taking from the rich to give to the poor, instead pursuing ‘the ideal of a perfect harmonization of interests’, i.e. where the worst-off gain without the better-off losing (TJ 89-90). Thus, the worst-off are the losers in Rawls’s model, notwithstanding his claims to the contrary.

Rawls refers to the difference principle as ‘so to speak, a veto’ held by the worst-off (PL 282). However, one should also note the implicit substitutionism of assuming that it is possible to help the poor by giving resources to the rich: the poor are not empowered by this, and the standpoint from which decisions are made, while involving a representational reference to the worst-off (in alterity), makes no actual or concrete reference to them. It is constructed outside and above the actually-existing “worst-off”. (Compare the following scenario: everyone has equal resources, and the choice of whether to give to others. If inequalities are really beneficial, the poor will choose to give money to the rich). Indeed, Rawls specifies that the standard has nothing to do with actual people: it is, rather, whether a relevant representative man (i.e. a role, interpreted in accordance with RCT) would prefer his prospects with or without inequality (TJ 56).

The lack of reference to the actually-existing “worst-off”, and resultant potential for sophistic abuse by politicians and the rich, is compounded by the fact that this category is defined so as to exclude specificities (emphasising the ‘expectations’ of the average member of the group) and emphasise long-term benefits (which may presumably be established speculatively). ‘The appropriate expectation in applying the difference principle is that of the long-term prospects of the least favoured extending over future generations’. As a result, appeals to the worst-off may in fact cover abstractions such as to ‘preserve the gains of culture and civilization’, maintain ‘just institutions’, and sustain ‘a suitable amount of real capital accumulation’ including investment in machinery, means of production, learning and education (TJ 252). Therefore, Rawls’s schema allows a government to (for instance) cut welfare spending to fund a war, cut income taxes so as to enable “capital accumulation” or smash strikes so as to enable money from wages to be invested in machinery, and still claim to be acting on behalf of the worst-off. For instance, Rawls suggests that saving can be prioritised over the wellbeing of the worst-off, since it increases the possible welfare of the worst-off in the future (TJ 254), and that the difference principle may permit large inequalities in wealth so as to give resources to those least likely to spend them and thereby enable savings (TJ 263-4). It is hard to see how well-off groups could be prevented from portraying nearly anything as “in the interests of the worst-off” under the difference principle, i.e. how they could be prevented from using it as a catch-all excuse. It is worth noting in this respect that Rawls prefers VAT to income tax (JAFAR 161, TJ 246), a position which is clearly conservative, since the latter targets the wealthy proportionately more than the former. (Someone on very low wages or benefits is likely to pay no income tax, but may still have to pay VAT). The ostensible reason for this is that it fits common sense by taxing what is taken from a ‘common store of goods’, whereas income tax penalises what one contributes (TJ 246) - clearly a mythical reading of social phenomena. What redistribution occurs seems to be focused on inheritance and gift taxes, and these are to be established by ‘theory, good sense, and plain hunch’, not the theory of justice, which has ‘nothing to say’ on such matters. Income tax is also permitted, but only to reduce unjust and excessive income inequalities, including today’s (TJ 245-6). It is also worth noting that his ‘property-owning democracy’ model differs from a welfare state in ways he specifies, and which suggest a kinship between his model and the so-called Third Way. He does not wish to redistribute income, but to ensure ‘widespread ownership of productive assets and human capital (educated abilities and trained skills)’ (TJ xv). This suggests that his commitment to the worst-off is in practice decidedly lukewarm, and acts as an ideological cover for capitalistic assumptions. (This is similar to the actual practice of the IMF, World Bank, WTO, etc. c.f. an excellent cartoon in Polyp’s Brave New World where an IMF agent explains to a poor person why structural adjustment is really in her benefit).

One should also note that the idea that inequalities are necessary to cover the costs of education and training implies a background unconditional endorsement of pay-to-learn. Indeed, he explicitly advocates that education be funded through loans (TJ 270). A situation of free education would not produce a problem of “covering the costs of education”. Rawls’s position on education funding contradicts his commitments to equality of opportunity and to benefiting the worst-off in the distribution of bases of self-respect, as well as his commitment to equalising “human capital”. (Also, Rawls seems to assume a correlation between high pay and high status. There are clear-cut exceptions to this rule, e.g. nurses - low pay and high status - and top managers - very high pay, but hated by large sections of the population).

Contrary to Rawls’s counterposing of incentives to illiberal command or coercive economies as an excuse for the former (TJ 241, JAFAR 64 - Rawls thinks equality would necessitate direct command relations), one should remember that “incentives” imply an entire system of control: firstly, that the population be disempowered in matters of distribution; secondly, that desire be artificially stimulated, frustrated and/or redirected, or satisfaction made increasingly conditional, so people respond to any kind of income increase (c.f. Weber on “primitive” people not responding to incentives); and thirdly, that activity be organised as a high-stress, surveillance-intense, highly regulated activity, and in an atomised way. (In practice, incentive-based payment schemes are favoured by bosses who have or seek a weak workforce, as a form of divide-and-rule). The specific social systems occasioned by the fictive scheme of which “incentives” is one linguistic expression are by no means cost-free, particularly as regards pressure and alienation. The endorsement of a control-based, top-down economy is also implied in Rawls’s reference to ‘organizational necessities’. One “cost” of the system Rawls implicitly advocates is a threat to one of the basic rights which is supposed to be guaranteed by the first principle (but is not), i.e. a right to freedom from psychological oppression. Incentive-based intensive labour schemes on the Stakhanovite model are a recipe for stress, anxiety and related problems.

People who need incentives to act justly are precisely not the kind of persons Rawls constructs in other parts of his theory, since they necessarily put rationality ahead of justice and reasonableness. (Indeed, he never seems to consider whether the demand for incentives is compatible with his model of the person). This assumption also contradicts other central assumptions, notably the Aristotelian Principle and the assumption of basic sociability. In one passage in an early essay, Rawls declares inequalities to be a concession to human nature, explicitly naturalising capitalistic reasoning. ‘if there are inequalities which satisfy the second principle, the immediate gain which equality would allow can be considered as intelligently invested in view of its future return. If, as is quite likely, these inequalities work as incentives to draw out better efforts, the members of this society may look upon them as concessions to human nature: they, like us, may think that people should ideally want to serve one another. But as they are mutually self-interested, their acceptance of these inequalities is merely the acceptance of the relations in which they actually stand, and a recognition of the motives which lead them to engage in their common practices. They have no title to complain of one another… [T]here is no reason why they should not allow such inequalities. Indeed, it would be short-sighted of them to do so’ - and the only reason for doing so would be if they felt dejected at the bare knowledge that others are better-off (CW 55). Refusal of the difference principle must be based on envy or mutual interestedness (TJ 131), unless they involve a ‘zero-sum’ struggle in a context of limited resources (TJ 472). It is indicative that Rawls speaks as if “motives” are somehow external to agents: these people want to “serve one another”, but can’t, because of something external which Rawls terms “motives” and which has to be “recognised” (as if as a matter of external fact). It is also indicative that he only permits one other of his theory to be considered: that of “dejection at the mere thought that others are better-off”. (In fact, there could also be other objections to the fictive structure of a discourse based on “incentives”).

I am sceptical about such ideas, because they establish a radical externality between “human nature” and ethics, as if the latter cannot affect the former (a position Rawls disavows). Keeping in mind that the difference principle is supposed to be “just” and not simply a useful compromise with reality, I suspect there may be an undeclared link between the idea of incentives and the positive valuation of work and so-called “reciprocity” (petty-mindedness). He implicitly links the two when he says that ‘the difference principle rests on our disposition to respond in kind to what others do for (or to) us’ (JAFAR 127), and also when he links inequality to the idea of ‘[s]ocial wealth… as the outcome of mutually advantageous cooperation’ (TJ 472). This link is also implied, for instance, when Rawls says that distribution should be ‘related to the contribution of individuals and designed to preserve the justice of basic institutions over time’, so that ‘the links of responsibility and contribution have to be traced through time and distribution suitably related to them’ (CW 299). One could also compare the passages cited above, that inequalities are permitted in return for socially-useful or ‘common good’ contributions (TJ 478, TJ 373; c.f. Dworkin’s extension of this idea), and a statement in an early essay that inequalities are just as long as they are a ‘reward’ for a contribution to the common good or to common advantage (CW 48-9). Although political virtue is not to be directly rewarded, ‘rewards’ are to be ‘attendant’ on offices people can ‘qualify’ for (PL 80-1). Getting returns based on contributions is fair according to Rawls, even if it leads to discrimination on the basis of “talent” or “willingness” (or ability) to try (LN 115). In other words, the construction of a type of person who requires and responds to incentives is part of the positive ideal of the person, not merely an acceptance of necessity. If so, this preference is unargued and invalid. The other possibility is that Rawls oscillates between constructing a theory of effective management of the present and constructing an ethical ideal. If this is the case, he is conferring a false ethical legitimacy on the present, simply because it exists. There is no reason to assume that “justice”, treated as an as yet unachieved ideal, is compatible with the economic models predominant in existing society. To assume this is to repressively reduce thought to the present, removing from ethical theory any potentially critical role. (‘Rationality’ is assumed to be just, since otherwise, a schema using its premises as part of a proceduralist scheme could not turn out to the just). In either case, there is a tendency to put capitalistic modes of thought and action beyond criticism. I would claim, in contrast, that, if someone does not feel motivated to use talents unless offered greater “incentives”, the basis is a particular libidinal structure or “organic ideology” - perhaps even an unconscious idea of “justice” - and not some kind of natural fact. It has to do with the underlying psychology which liberalism itself constructs, and with infrapolitical relations. (RCT is flawed because it reifies present contingent propensities into absolutes and thereby conceals concrete concerns).

One should recall that Rawls has theoretical resources within his theory - the very ones I have elsewhere attacked for their exclusionary implications - which more than allow him to reject present realities which he finds offensive or inconvenient. He could, in various ways, remove the issue of “incentives” from ideal theory and locate it among the issues of “partial compliance” and “nonideal theory”. (It is not clear how people in the original position could reach the conclusion that those they represent would need “incentives”; presumably Rawls considers it to be a “general fact” of human nature, although this still does not explain why it is privileged over, for instance, envy and sadism, which are also “factual”. In any case, justice is supposed to be prior to efficiency, or else Rawls could not justify the first principle of justice; c.f. also e.g. TJ 266). He could, for instance, declare the demand for incentives to be “unjust” or “unreasonable”, a claim similar to those based on sadism or an incapacity to take responsibility for ends, and therefore declare that it has “no weight”. Those who demand incentives as a precondition for productivity could then be dismissed as “greedy”, in the same way that (for instance) “cruel”, “envious” and “obsessive” people are dismissed. (It is significant that, in this case, the “unjust” alignment is normal: Rawls seems to save pathologising labels for the abnormal, probably because of his concern with stability. In other words, he is only prepared to pathologise in cases where the victims of the process are too weak to fight back, because otherwise, the “injustice” becomes a “fact of human nature” and is too pervasive to simply ignore. In this way, what is normal tends to be labelled as what is just, because of the conservative pressure exerted by the emphasis on stability). Alternatively, Rawls could “accept” the “necessity” of incentives as a compromise with “injustice”: in the same way that he allows a state to make compromises with an intolerant minority to prevent greater injustice or to breach civil liberties to prevent an “unjust” crisis, he could also decide to allow “unjust” distributions to avoid a greater evil, while stopping short of declaring them to be “just” and while continuing to advocate their elimination in the medium to long term (“when circumstances permit”, or when people conform more closely to an ideal model of a just person). He would then accept “incentives”, but only as part of a modus vivendi. I am not advocating that one adopt either of these positions, but the crucial point is that Rawls’s theory contains the possibilities of taking these positions. It is therefore indicative that he chooses instead to incorporate “incentives”, not as an external limit on “justice”, but as something interior to it and completely compatible with it. Further, he specifically states that the worst-off should develop feelings of fraternity and friendliness towards the better-off because of the difference principle, so everyone is bound by ‘mutual ties’ - even though he says that, even in a well-ordered society, different groups will have different levels of commitment to justice (see TJ 437). This suggests he is performing an ethical, not simply a pragmatic, adaptation. Capitalistic reasoning is to become part of something more fixed than a modus vivendi, and is to be put beyond contrary demands arising from “justice”. This is significant, because Rawls does mobilise ideas of unreasonableness, weightless claims and contingent submission to unfortunate necessity when discussion systems of class domination other than capitalism (e.g. slavery and serfdom). Thus, the division between prohibited and permitted forms of class domination could easily be taken to be vague and arbitrary, perhaps only a matter of personal preference on Rawls’s part. If a system of slavery or serfdom cannot be justified on the basis of its efficiency, it is hard to see why a system of wage-slavery (euphemised as “incentives”) should be any different.

In fact, Rawls does introduce an idea of “greed”, operating in much the same way as “envy” and the like, but he restricts it in such a way that the demand for “incentives” is excluded from it. Since ‘each society has a redistribution policy which if pushed beyond a certain point weakens incentives and thereby lowers production’, greed consists in anything which undermines this policy (see TJ 142 - check this reference).

Perhaps because of the naturalising function performed by RCT, Rawls tends to naturalise capitalist ways of thinking in such a way as to portray strategic and discourse-specific modes of action by capitalists as natural outgrowths of human nature. The demand for “incentives” is a political demand - one could, in some cases (such as strikes of capital), even say a form of blackmail - by a particular social group, and this group’s choice (or even its unconscious propensity) to make this kind of demand is not natural but contingent. One is dealing with an instance of “threat-advantage”, which Rawls is supposed to have excluded from his theory, and which he does indeed exclude when the threatening agents are workers rather than capitalists. Rawls cannot prove as a matter of fact that incentives are necessary in every possible society, since the economic theories on which he draws are limited in application to present capitalistic systems. Hence, he allows existing elites to naturalise their own existence and to bully other strata by demanding incentives as a condition of “social cooperation”. It is as if capitalist economics is a quasi-natural fact, immune to the “should” of “justice”. It is as if the repressed desires are reconstructed as a quasi-exterior barrier to the justice one consciously affirms, so that it is not enough that one believe in justice: one must also be persuaded on another level, a level which is outside one’s conscious control. This image is especially strong when Rawls portrays the difference principle as expressing an idea of fraternity. It means ‘not wanting to have greater advantages unless this is to the benefit of others who are less well off’. ‘Those better circumstanced are willing to have their greater advantages only under a scheme in which this works out for the benefit of the less fortunate’ (TJ 90). This image of rich people who do not really want to be rich, but reluctantly consent to being rich because this benefits the worst-off, is the clearest case of doublespeak in Rawls’s work on inequality. Someone who did not want to have greater wealth than others would not demand incentives in the first place. Thus, the idea of incentives is incompatible with the idea of fraternity. The splitting of the self implicit in the concept of the noumenal self may well be recurring here, but with different implications (since in this case, Rawls advocates submitting to “pathological”, “heterogeneous” drives as if to an external force).

Marcuse says the following about liberalism and economic inequality: ‘liberalism proceeds from the essential inequality of men, which is considered the presupposition of the harmony of the whole’ (Negations 271). ‘Behind the economic forces and relations of capitalist society liberalism sees “natural” laws which will demonstrate their entirely salutary naturalness if only they are left to develop freely and without artificial disturbance… There is a “nature of things” which has its own primal law-like character independently of human activity or power and that persists and continually reproduces itself through and despite all disturbances… Liberalism believes that through adaptation to these “natural laws” the conflict between different wants, the strife between the general interest and private interests, as well as social inequality are ultimately overcome… Here, in the center of the liberalist system, society is interpreted through its reduction to “nature” in its harmonizing function’ (12-13). One could add also the following reflection from Žižek: ‘The fact that, if one does not obey the limits set by Capital, a crisis “really follows”, in no way proves that the necessity of these limits is an objective necessity of economic life. It should rather be conceived as proof of the privileged position Capital holds in the economic and political struggle, as in the situation where a stronger partner threatens that if you do X, you will be punished by Y, and then upon your doing X, Y effectively ensues’ (Multiculturalism p. 35).

Badiou states that ‘parliamentary politics as practiced today… consists of turning the spectacle of the economy into the object of an apathetic (though obviously unstable) public consensus… [T]he possibilities whose development it pretends to organize are in reality circumscribed and annulled, in advance, by the external neutrality of the economic referent in such a way that subjectivity in general is inevitably dragged down into a kind of belligerent impotence, the emptiness of which is filled by elections and the “sound-bites” of party leaders’ (Badiou Ethics 31). The “necessity” of “incentives” due to “human nature” is the Rawlsian figure for the annulling of subjectivity.

Basically, the result is that obedience is taken to justify whatever demands the system, in “everyone’s” interests, determines to give: ‘those who, with the prospect of improving their condition, have done what the system announces it will reward are entitled to have their expectations met’ (TJ 89). This may even lead to inequalities in excess over those officially permitted by the difference principle. ‘[E]ven the best economic arrangements will not always lead to the more preferred outcomes. The claims [based on legitimate expectations] that individuals actually acquire inevitably deviate more or less widely from those that the scheme is designed to account for’ (TJ 276).

Rawls claims that the difference principle should be acceptable both to the better-off and the worst-off (TJ 89). In one passage on Mill, Rawls hints that he thinks the difference principle should remove barriers which cause interpersonal and class conflict, and that it would create a ‘perfected’ state of mind ‘in which each person has a feeling of unity with others’ (TJ 439). Indeed, it is supposed to be the most egalitarian liberal principle possible, and Rawls, having invalidated left critiques as “unreasonable”, mainly anticipates attacks from the right or from the better-off. He claims that justice as fairness is the most egalitarian of the range of liberal or reasonable conceptions (LN 14). Having labelled egalitarianism as unreasonable, he then asserts that there are ‘wide differences of reasonable opinion’ regarding economic inequalities, so that the difference principle cannot be included in ‘constitutional essentials’ (PL 229-30). This suggests that such “essentials” would permit greater inequality than the difference principle, but would prohibit equality as “unreasonable”. He expects to be criticised mainly for being too favourable to the worst-off (TJ 88), and suggests that it is the well-off who are more likely to reject his conception (JAFAR 125). (Indeed, it is likely that any establishment of the difference principle as primary in “public culture” would require large changes in the self-conceptions of capitalists and other powerful groups, even though they could probably manipulate such a conception to their advantage if they needed to).

There is also a big problem of evidence. The claims Rawls makes about when equalities are justified are highly abstract and not specifically testable in a given case. How, then, does one show that a particular regime of inequalities, or a particular inequality, is or is not to the benefit of the worst-off? How, for instance, does one establish how much people could expect in a “hypothetical” situation of perfect equality, so as to justify inequalities which lead to more? How does one establish whether a particular group really “needs” extra income as an incentive, or if it is demanding such income unjustly? How does one establish in advance whether a particular change in income levels will affect the worst-off for better or worse (especially in the long-term)? How, and in what time-frame, does one know when an inequality permitted so as to eventually help the worst-off can be properly said to have failed in this purpose? Much of the knowledge required is counterfactual. It strikes me that, given the speculative and imprecise nature of the underlying permitted justifications (e.g. the borderline between “incentives” and blackmail: can one argue, “I would willingly work for less, but my need for incentives prevents it”, and does this argument have limits to its valid use? How does the “need” for incentives fit with “responsibility for ends”?), the matter is basically one of rhetorical justification: any particular regime can be described as either just or unjust, depending on mere assertions (i.e. that the rich would or would not be as productive if given less). Thus, the difference principle is not really an advantage in terms of stability. The only restriction Rawls places on the use of the difference principle is that it must not justify full equality, and this tends to load it in favour of inegalitarian interpretations. Furthermore, given that Rawls also justifies political inequality, it is likely to be the best-off who are deciding whether the difference principle justifies existing inequalities, and they have, according to Rawls’s assumptions, “self-interested” reasons to exaggerate the necessity of inequality. As a “language-game”, the difference principle permits manipulation by elites and is a recipe for continued domination under a quasi-egalitarian veil.

There are a number of related problems arising around the issue of the costs to “society” of bosses and bureaucrats, especially the fact that, in both the public and private sectors, they tend to set the levels of their own wages. In other words, it is the best-off who decide whether their greater “incentives” serve the worst-off, often very undemocratically. Indeed, Rawls seems to exclude specific issues of this kind from the range of application of his theory, further distancing it from concrete issues. The difference principle is only to apply to wide-ranging national economic policies, and not to specific transactions or economic decisions (CW 262). This lets bosses off the hook, since there are effectively no ethical standards at all in the case of their decisions.

In general, Rawls downplays the importance of the issue of inequality. In “The Law of Peoples”, Rawls opposes the idea that there is anything inherently wrong with inequality at all. He says that, in internal politics, there are only three reasons for opposing inequalities: to ‘relieve the suffering and hardships of the poor’, to avoid stigmatisation and exclusion (e.g. class deference) which harms self-respect, and to secure the fairness of institutions such as equal opportunities and elections (LN 114-15). Similarly, in A Theory of Justice, he suggests that there is no link between self-esteem and inequality, or at least not in a well-ordered society. Only in political and civic affairs is inequality hard to accept. Therefore, there is nothing objectionable about leaving economic inequality to the market, provided background institutions protect against ‘excusable envy’ (TJ 478). Rawls’s sole reason for claiming this is that a link between self-esteem and inequality would make social cooperation to increase self-esteem impossible and would put people at odds with one another (TJ 478) - in other words, because it would be inconvenient, he assumes it is untrue. (Presumably, Rawlsian persons are to decide to decouple self-esteem and wealth so as to achieve stability, as if this is a simple matter of personal choice). People in the original position decide to link self-esteem to citizenship instead, so that the first principle entails equality in the social bases of self-respect (TJ 478). If this ideal proves unrealisable, Rawls suggests that one could expand the concept of “excusable envy” to rule out some inequalities based on the good of self-respect. However, he would prefer not to do this for reasons of simplicity (TJ 479). He also refuses to include social mobility as a primary good, claiming that this would be superfluous since it is already taken care of by equality of opportunity (CW 364). (In fact it is not, since one could also argue for a more affirmative enablement of mobility).

Rawls also sneaks other justifications for inequality into his theory. He introduces the contentious idea of a “trickledown” (or in his own terms, ‘chain-linking’) effect as an argument for his theory, without fully committing himself to it. This argument is rigged in such a way that the claim that wealth trickles down is never actually tested for validity. It is, however, necessary for one of Rawls’s basic assumptions, i.e. that what benefits the worst-off under the difference principle will also benefit intermediate groups (TJ 70-1, 79).

Another type of inequality (of authority) is supposed to be necessary so people can exercise powers of “self-government” (presumably meaning to guarantee the dominance of the noumenal self over the rest of the psyche), confirming the claim that Rawls favours authoritarian psychological structures. The list of primary goods includes ‘[p]owers and prerogatives of offices and positions of responsibility: these give scope to various self-governing and social capacities of the self’ (PL 308). In other words, people are supposed to have an inner need to dominate others. If the difference principle operates here, Rawls presumably believes authority inequalities to be to the benefit of the worst-off, although in what way is unspecified (perhaps via the “universal” good of public order?). (Rawls also admits - TJ 64 - that noblesse oblige was based on something similar to the difference principle. One should note that, drawing a Scottian analogy, Rawls’s reading is closer to the nobles’ version of noblesse oblige than to the peasants’ version, which made noblesse dependent on oblige rather than establishing a prior fantasmatic unity between the two).

Rawls does not guarantee that means of production should be private, but he sees private ownership of means of production as compatible with the principles of justice. Whether they are privately owned should depend on tradition and circumstances (PL 338). Rawls suggests two possible realisations of his principles: property-owning democracy and liberal socialism. The latter seems to be primarily a form of state control similar to that advocated by reformers during the “communist” period in eastern Europe, and the former is basically a variety of capitalism, with a less extensive welfare state than in social-democracy but with extremes of wealth discouraged and political freedoms guaranteed.

Despite his noncommittal position on private ownership of the means of production, Rawls’s theory frequently involves naturalisation of capitalist phenomena. He accepts both capitalist processes and the official (naturalised or reified) excuses for these processes. For instance, he accepts that wages should be set by “market” processes, and he (wrongly) sees this as rewarding work on the basis of what people are prepared to pay for goods. He therefore sees the market as the source of the principle of “from each according to his effort” (TJ 269). He has no problem with wages being set by “supply and demand”, as long as surrounding institutions regulate the market and provide for basic needs and equal opportunities (TJ 271). Indeed, at one point he states that wages and salaries should be ‘determined by free trade and demand’ and not by organised activities (JAFAR 67). He criticises the market for tending to produce unjustified inequalities (PL 267), but he seems to want to rectify this by fairly superficial state intervention. He also wishes to use variations in wages and salaries ‘as incentives’, as badges of status, to cover training costs and to increase production (JAFAR 63). He also refers to markets as allowing ‘the decisions of households to regulate the items to be produced for private purposes’ (TJ 272). He also assumes that population size is excessive if a society’s economy cannot sustain it (LN 109), suggesting naturalisation of capitalist relations. On the other hand, he also wants ‘fair bargaining power… between employers and employees’ (PL 267). However, he does not define what a “fair” balance of power would involve. Presumably, it is not to permit workers to interfere with bosses’ setting of wages on a “market” basis. Further, he implicitly eternalises relations of domination by assuming the persistence of the boss/worker relation. There is also a passage where he naturalises private ownership of resources as necessary to ensure they do not deteriorate (LN 8), a view which contrasts with the destructive impact of corporate colonisation of the world. He also treats the existence of ‘large industrial market economies’ as an example of a social condition subject to knowledge (CW 390), rather than as something people (even people in the original position) could assess and endorse or refuse.

He also justifies inequalities such as primogeniture and hereditary aristocracy (and implicitly, other kinds of caste domination and discrimination) which breach the first principle, provided a case can be made that ‘attempts to eliminate these inequalities would so interfere with the social system and operations of the economy that in the long run anyway the opportunities of the disadvantaged would be even more limited’. Though he admits that such claims are likely to seem self-serving, they are formally accurate and so might be just in some cases (TJ 265). In other words, he provides a cover even for illiberal systems to legitimate themselves by reference to social stability. Even a slaveholder who claims that slaves would have chosen the risk of being a slave in the original position could be right, since, however ‘outrageous’ it seems, ‘the general form of the slaveholder’s argument is correct’. A slave who wishes to resist is supposed first to go to the lengths of arguing from the original position (TJ 145). The intolerability of slavery as a system is not itself enough to justify rebellion. Any specific system of inequality may in principle prove to be justified (opening the doors to a language-game in which every oppressor has the opportunity to manipulate public speech). ‘[I]f, say, men are favored in the assignment of basic rights, this inequality is justified by the difference principle… only if it is to the advantage of women and acceptable from their standpoint’, which, it is to be recalled, is defined abstractly (so the group may have no say in deciding whether an arrangement is “acceptable” from its “standpoint”). Ditto caste, class, race, ethnicity and culture (TJ 85). Discrimination is justified if it is good for human advancement (TJ 129). (One should notice, however, that while this argument may include Rawls’s discussion of children, it does not seem to encompass his positions on psychological difference and on prisons, both of which are explicitly for the benefit of the group left “better-off” by the relation of domination). (Rawls does not seem to have considered the problem that ruling groups frequently define “human advancement” in line with their own preferences). Differences which are not permitted in the original position may also be used to distribute offices and rewards in actual societies (i.e. construct inequality), without breaching Rawls’s theory (PL 79). Equality also only pertains to “starting places”: free association (in Rawls’s sense, i.e. including capitalism) can legitimately lead to further inequalities not permitted in the initial arrangement of places (TJ 82). “Associations” are also allowed extensive inequalities provided members can leave and have equality as citizens (PL 42). Rawls also permits discrimination which is “fair” in an unspecified sense, such as ‘qualifications of age, residency, and so on’ for elected representatives (TJ 196). These instances of inequality would not seem to be to the benefit of the worst-off.

Furthermore, functional differentiation is used to permit systems of domination, even blatantly illiberal ones, such as those which allow some people more votes than others. ‘Government is assumed to aim at the common good… To the extent that this presumption holds, and some men can be identified as having superior wisdom and judgment, others are willing to trust them and to concede to their opinion a greater weight. The passengers of a ship are willing to let the captain steer the course, since they believe that he is more knowledgeable and wishes to arrive safely as much as they do. There is both an identity of interests and a noticeably greater skill and judgment in realizing it [sic]. Now the ship of state is in some ways analogous to a ship at sea; and to the extent that this is so, the political liberties are indeed subordinate to the other freedoms… Admitting these assumptions, plural voting may be perfectly acceptable’ (TJ 205). This mystifies both ships and governments: the whole point about government is that it is precisely not a relationship of voluntary trust (and neither is the position of a captain in either a commercial or a military organisation). Again, the question arises of who defines what counts as “noticeably greater skill and judgement” (not to mention what count as “common interests”).

There are also de facto inequalities in the operation even of the “equal liberties” supposedly guaranteed under the first principle. This is because Rawls’s concept of liberty is formal rather than actual. Some degree of actual liberty exists only when liberties also have what Rawls calls their “fair value”, and he demands “fair value” only in the case of political liberties (e.g. the right to vote). In other cases, he guarantees liberty (i.e. the formal framework) but not fair value (PL 327-8). (Whether he actually protects even these liberties is not clear, since he seems to think - PL 328 - that state funding for political parties and regulation of elections will achieve the fair value of political liberties. It is not clear how he reconciles the independence of parties with state funding, i.e. how he proposes that state interference should be prevented. Fair value also seems to include non-restriction of some kinds of expression - see PL 358). Fair value of other liberties is ‘either irrational or superfluous or socially divisive’, any of which supposedly invalidate such a goal. It is irrational if it means equal distribution, because it does not submit to capitalist ‘efficiency’; it is superfluous if it means equal worth of liberties, which is anyway guaranteed by the two principles; and it is socially divisive if it means any actual rights as regards, for instance, equal realisation of religious interests (PL 329-30). Fear of ‘strife’ is Rawls’s reason for non-responsiveness to concrete claims, even though such non-responsiveness is itself a source of ‘strife’. Abstraction is a useful solace for those who see reality as ‘strife’, but the retreat into abstractions only represses and does not solve problems. Rawls also does not take up civil liberties as opposed to political ones. For instance, his schema does not offer fair value of free speech, and therefore falls foul of Marcuse’s critique of repressive tolerance. Emancipation may well depend on the articulation of claims which cause ‘strife’, and which cannot be subsumed in official channels of control. Rawls seems to resist such claims unconditionally. Even in the space of political liberties, Rawls expects that in practice the better-off will be able to ‘take advantage’ of it, relying only on their own sense of obligation to constrain them (TJ 330). Economic inequality is not to be enough to interfere with the political system and/or with liberty (TJ 70), but determining when it reaches this point seems to be little more than a matter of intuitive “balancing”.

Another issue of inequality arises around the issue of so-called “natural assets”. The first mystification here involves the very idea under discussion: the idea that certain natural propensities directly produce benefits for individuals. This can be questioned “even” in cases such as physical disability, since the world has been intensively territorialised by an in-group which defines itself as normal, and the resultant incapacities and difficulties faced by outsiders are a result of this territorialisation. (To take a similar case, if all buildings had small doorways inaccessible to tall people, the result would be that tall people would have a variety of difficulties in terms of access to services, ability to work and physical mobility; this would not be a result of their being tall, but of a particular territorialisation). It is even more true of the variety of other propensities (such as characterological ones) which Rawls seems to have in mind. Criteria of “employability” are a result of political and potentially contestable decisions by capitalists, state leaders and in a few cases the “normal” majority (or elite), and do not reflect any kind of “natural” superiority. While one might speak of “natural difference”, the translation of difference into inequality is a result of social relations. (Inequality implies the reduction of difference to a scheme of sameness - for instance, money as a [semi-]universal equivalent. There is therefore a problem in speaking, as Rawls does, of a “lottery” or ordering of talents). Rawls treats difference as meaning the same as inequality. For instance, in one passage he identifies inequality with contingency (via equivalence): ‘The aim… is not to eliminate contingencies from social life, for some contingencies are inevitable’ (PL 283). Where, one might say, is the difference between this statement and those made by Deleuze and Guattari? The answer is that this statement implicitly equates contingency, not with horizontal relations, but with the existence of inequality. In other words, Rawls assumes difference to be always-already overcoded by sameness.

For Rawls, so-called natural assets or endowments are ‘neither just nor unjust’ (TJ 89). Rawls treats them as if they are specifiable characteristics of individuals (not social relations), so that one can at least speculatively consider the possibility of a tax on native endowments (JAFAR 157-8), a proposal Rawls raises but opposes. In his view, talents are themselves ordered: there is a ‘natural lottery of abilities and talents’ (CW 292). ‘The natural distribution [e.g. of talents] is neither just nor unjust; nor is it unjust that persons are born into society at some particular position. These are simply natural facts. What is just or unjust is the way that institutions deal with these facts’ (TJ 87). This is basically a way of saying that he feels such things to be, in his own words, ‘arbitrary from a moral perspective’ (TJ 64), but refuses to follow this through into a case that they should not affect distribution (even as an ideal). Instead, the difference principle is supposed to allow people to benefit “fairly” from so-called “natural” assets (and also from other arbitrary advantages such as family and class background). Indeed, Rawls explicitly aims to make people accept others’ benefiting from such factors. His theory is supposed to ensure that ‘the natural distribution of assets and circumstances can more easily be accepted’: instead, people are to ‘dwell upon our good fortune now these differences are made to work to our advantage’, are no longer to be downcast at such inequalities. It should therefore ‘reconcile us to the dispositions of the natural order and the conditions of human life’ (TJ 448). In Rawls’s theory, those who he terms naturally well-endowed do not deserve their endowments, but nevertheless have a right not only to the endowments but to anything they can acquire from the endowments through a fair social system (TJ 89). In meeting entitlements, one does not reward desert or intrinsic worth, but honours ‘legitimate expectations as founded upon social institutions’ (TJ 273). In other words, the coherence of the existing system of power-relations is put in place of any general standard which could assess this system (a tendency widespread in Rawls’s work). One excuse for having a ‘system of entitlements that encourages and rewards productive efforts’ is that people have a ‘right’ both to natural abilities and to what can be gained from them (CW 263). This is because the difference principle ensures that everyone benefits from such natural assets. ‘In justice as fairness men agree to avail themselves of the accidents of nature and social circumstance only when doing so is for the common advantage’ (TJ 88), and at one point he claims to regard ‘natural talents as in some respects a common asset’ (TJ 87). Those ‘favored by nature’ may benefit ‘only on terms that improve the situation’ of others, i.e. in return for ‘compensating advantages’ (TJ 87). However, he adds that the assets themselves cannot ‘be enjoyed or suffered in common’, explicitly renouncing (in a paper written after A Theory of Justice) the idea of redistributing natural assets (CW 263-4). It is ‘inevitable’ that differences in natural abilities, class origins and even luck will lead to inequalities (JAFAR 124). Thus, as with inequalities in general, Rawls’s interest is not in whether inequalities resulting from ‘happenstance’ are justified, but ‘by what principle’ people can be persuaded to ‘accept’ them (PL 281). Equal opportunities apply only to people who are ‘similarly endowed and motivated’, and it is even permissible for the family to substantially alter life-chances (TJ 265). In other words, Rawls permits the continuation of class inequalities indefinitely. Inequalities due to past historical events - often processes of violence such as the enclosures, colonialism and slavery - are treated as part of the “natural” stratum of contingent but not inherently immoral advantages.

One should keep in mind that Rawls expressly denies the idea that the social system is somehow natural (TJ 88). However, the basic function of the idea of “natural assets”, and by implication of the difference principle, is to naturalise social inequalities in such a way as to make them seem morally valid. If the difference principle is portrayed as allowing unequal rewards on the basis of morally-arbitrary but unavoidable natural contingencies - in other words, that people who benefit from it are favoured by natural circumstances and not by social arrangement - it perhaps seems more tolerable than if it is seen as naturalising socially-constructed inequalities of power. (It may seem absurd to oppose natural conditions of life, and petty-minded to resent others for happening to be naturally fortunate. Although he does not say as much, Rawls seems to regard a system of equality of outcomes as akin to trying to rectify purely natural differences - for instance, by cutting everyone’s legs off to prevent disability-based inequalities). In my view, such power inequalities become all the more intolerable for their being mistakenly cast as matters of “natural” endowment. Such classification prevents their being discussed or open to any kind of dialogue, entrenching domination and hiding it from critique. A particular, contingent system of power relations is treated as a natural order or a feature of the general human situation. If, for instance, somebody is paid more than others because capitalists desire workers with a particular personality trait (for instance, someone who obeys orders unconditionally), the benefits which result from this preference result from a particular system of power, and not a characteristic of superiority inherent in the character-trait itself. (In other words, an obedient person would earn more, not because of a natural superiority over disobedient people - in other circumstances, the power-relations might be different - but because an existing set of asymmetrical discourses, in this case class-based discourses of authoritarian control, are socially dominant and tend to monopolise resources. Some personal differences, such as shyness versus assertiveness, extroversy versus introversy, and blunt versus cautious styles of communication, are valued differently in different “cultures” and discourses, rendering the idea of “natural” superiorities absurd). It is especially sinister that he thinks that being born into a particular social position is a “natural fact”. In general, Rawls’s discussion of “natural” inequalities is a way of naturalising socially-based inequalities and naturalising the transition from difference to inequality, i.e. a particular set of power-relations. (The idea of “natural” assets also conjures the image of a state of nature prior to society, which Rawls tries but fails to eliminate from his theory entirely. One could couple this idea with the idea of “benefits arising from social cooperation” to show that a state of nature is an undeclared but necessary presupposition of Rawls’s theory. If differences really are “natural”, that Rawls is also open to a Nietzschean critique for trying to entrap these differences in a collectivist scheme).

As if this inequality is not enough, Rawls also resists fervently any attempt to extend his principles into the international sphere. There is a limited and ambiguous “duty of aid” to societies which cannot realise a liberal or decent society due to unfavourable conditions, but this is to exist so as to expand the liberal model and is to have a strict ‘cut-off point’. In particular, it is not to turn into a redistributive mechanism. It is only to provide for the establishment of sustainable liberal institutions and certain environmental conditions, and Rawls assumes that these require very little aid. There is no duty of aid to a poor but well-ordered society (LN 106-7). The only legitimate international claim is a claim to raise the standard of living high enough to realise just institutions. There is no claim for more, and after a society reaches the (unspecified) level which allows just institutions, other societies’ “duty of assistance” to it ceases (LN 119). International redistribution may seem appealing today, but it would lead to ‘unacceptable results’ (one might ask, unacceptable to whom?) if applied in perpetuity, because it would prevent choices about whether to become wealthy and about population growth (LN 117-18). Global equality is simply not an ethical good, and it is unjust only if it affects the basic structure of the society of peoples. Such cases would allow room for some minor ‘corrections’ (LN 113, 115), as well as for (unspecified) fair trade provisions (LN 38). In this case, the meaning of “fair” is crucial, because both the WTO and ATTAC would claim to support “fair” trade. For Rawls, there is simply not an issue about compensating for resource inequalities, because how a society fares depends on its political culture, not its resources (LN 117). Inequality cannot exist, or rather, it cannot ‘excuse itself’ because of a shortage of resources (LN 110). (He never specifies how much is necessary to have liberal institutions - one might suggest that any increase in the wealth of poor societies would reduce resource-use conflicts and therefore stabilise political institutions - but it seems to be very little, and its use appears to be politicised, i.e. a form of “tied” aid used to achieve gleichschaltung and to integrate underdeveloped countries into the global, i.e. neo-imperialist, system).

A well-ordered society would not be justified to resent being poor, since a well-ordered society adjusts its own wealth via savings and borrowing (LN 114). Furthermore, the world system is to include inequalities on (unspecified) grounds paralleling the ‘functional social and economic inequalities’ within societies (LN 35), inequalities Rawls sees as serving ‘the many ends that peoples share’ (?LN 41). Peoples are to decide for themselves on the inequalities between them (LN 39). One net result is that Rawls does not allow individuals to make claims on a global scale (see LN 119-20), instead being represented only via “peoples” and their conceptions of justice. In other words, he protects capitalism and western states from criticism for the inhuman effects of the systems they have created.

Again, this model implies a naturalisation of capitalism: the use of savings and borrowing to alter slightly one’s economic position is taken to imply that a “people” is self-determining. This seems to be an endorsement of a ‘functional’ inequality which uses underdeveloped societies as adjuncts of western capitalism. Rawls is naïve about the global system and the history of colonialism and neo-colonialism. He discusses international politics without considering power-relations, and he therefore effectively mystifies western dominance - especially since he also proposes a scheme of aid which bullies other societies into adopting western models. The idea that economic inequalities result from differences in “political culture” is another mystification: it is not surprising that western and similar societies “fare” well in a global system run by the west, for the west (nor that resource-rich countries, the main victims of imperialist interventions, are often not among the richest).

He also tolerates a variety of other inequalities resulting from the arrangement of ostensibly private concerns. For instance, even public institutions such as universities are not supposed to directly apply the difference principle but are only to be ‘restricted’ by it. Rawls claims it is ‘unreasonable’ to want the difference principle applied in everyday life (PL 261).


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