Archives: 12/2006

Rawls and the ‘Greatest Philosopher of the Past Few Centuries’

I’ve been reading the discussion of John Rawls by Will (here and here) and Sigrid (here and here), as well as the Richard Epstein tribute to Rawls that Will quotes in his first post.

Rawls’ theory, I think, suffers from the fatal flaw that his “justice as fairness” ideal, and the “veil of ignorance” experiment that embodies it, could support a very broad range of moral/political systems. The imperatives Rawls derives from his machinery are just one of many sets that it could produce. A Theory of Justice seems a sort of moral Rorschach test; in its pages, almost any reader can see whatever political system he or she prefers. Consider what Epstein writes in his NRO tribute: “Rawls’s framework could easily and sensibly be pressed into service by those who had more utilitarian objectives.”

In Beyond Good and EvilFriedrich Nietzsche (who gets my vote as the greatest philosopher of the last 200 years) offers this critique of philosophers’ use of elaborate theoretical machinery to support their moral theories:

They all pose as if they had discovered and reached their real opinions through the self-development of a cold, pure, divinely unconcerned dialectic (as opposed to the mystics of every rank, who are more honest and doltish—and talk of “inspiration”); while at bottom it is an assumption, a hunch, indeed a kind of “inspiration”—most often a desire of the heart that has been filtered and made abstract—that they defend with reasons they have sought after the fact. (BG&E, Aph. 5; Kaufmann’s translation)

Few people today read Nietzsche, and even fewer read him well. If you’re a libertarian who’s into Ayn Rand, treat yourself to a copy of Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals.

And to answer Will’s other survey question: The Beatles. Not even close.

Rawls and Classical Liberalism as a Public Philosophy

I appreciate Sigrid’s posts about my discussion of Rawls. I would like to emphasize that one of the animating principles in Rawls’ philosophy is in fact respect for persons. His main foil in A Theory of Justice is a utilitarian theory that fails to recognize or respect persons as such, but only as expendable containers of pleasure and pain. His libertarian First Principle of justice–basically Spencer’s principle of equal freedom–embodies this concern for persons. Nozick’s critique of Rawls can be read as a work that explores what it would mean if Rawls took his First Principle fully seriously. (That is, Nozick is not just stipulating rights, but is simply accepting Rawls’ most important intermediate conclusion, and then seeing where that truly leads.) The distributive concern in the Second Principle–that the worst off class should be as well off as possible–is, literally, secondary.

I agree with Rawls (and Hayek, and many others) that a just society is a species of a well-ordered society. An optimally well-ordered society is one whose members positively affirm and are motivated to comply voluntarily with its principles of association. A society that fails to do as well as possible for the least well-off is unlikely to gain the endorsement of the least well-off, who will then have little reason to voluntarily comply with its fundamental rules, and this can have a devastating destabilizing effect on the social order. An unstable society–one out of dynamic equilibrium–is not well-ordered, and therefore cannot be just. (That’s one reason I think the fiscal imbalances of Social Security and Medicare are more than a mere practical problem that needs to be fixed, but a serious matter for our viability as a just society.) Additionally, it strikes many reasonable people, including me, that a society that fails to do as well as possible for the least well-off manifests a lack of respect for those people. If there was an irreconcilable conflict between liberty and a well-ordered society, one that that is truly, as Rawls put it, “a cooperative venture for mutual advantage”–if liberty truly was not to the advantage of some people–then it seems to me that people who do not find advantage in such a system of liberty would not be unreasonable to reject it. And in that case, I am afraid that liberty would be incompatible with a well-ordered society and therefore justice.

However, I am firmly convinced that there is a deep congruence between liberty, mutual advantage, stability, and justice. In very much the same way the great classical liberal Herbert Spencer valued total utility, but held that only a system of imprescriptible negative rights would reliably maximize it, I value positive liberty–the actual capacity or power of persons to achieve their ends–but hold that only a system of imprescriptible negative rights can be expected to reliably support the complex forms of social cooperation most likely to ensure that people’s liberties are actually valuable for the achievement of their ends. I do not think the nation-state, a system of taxation, or redistribution is illegitimate, unjust, or in any way expresses disrespect for persons as long as those instruments are in fact the best means to the end of ensuring people the worth of their liberties, and the ability to successfully pursue their well-being as they conceive it.

Last, it’s evident that even libertarian Cato Institute policy analysts do not share a common fundamental comprehensive moral theory or political philosophy. There is a great deal of pluralism within our ideological unity. As Rawls notes in his second great work, Political Liberalism, disagreement over fundamental moral conceptions strikes with a vengeance in American society at large, and accommodation of such broad, intractable pluralism is at the core of the liberal project. Only small enclaves or deeply illiberal police states can sustain social order on the basis of a single dominant conception of the moral good. Workable liberal societies do, however, require a broadly shared public philosophy based in what Rawls called an “overlapping consensus” of diverse comprehensive moral views that is compatible with most of them, but leans too heavily on none. One of my own major aims is to promote the viability of classical liberalism as just such a public philosophy–one that does not require utopian near-unanimous social agreement on controversial moral claims like “all coercion is immoral,” “taxation is theft,” or “God created us with natural rights to property,” for example, but which is fairly with consistent such views, as well as many others based in very different moral assumptions. I’m convinced that this is the best way forward if classical liberalism is to have a shot at becoming a viable public philosophy in a cosmopolitan, pluralistic societies like ours. But I wouldn’t believe this if it wasn’t for Rawls, which is one reason I hold him in such high esteem, despite my strong disagreement with many of his ultimate conclusions.

One More Thought On Rawls

Every form of political theory which focuses on distributive justice misses the point.  The whole Rawlsian calculus is wrong because the goal of political theory should not be to improve the lot of the worst off.  It actually doesn’t matter what form of economy, laissez-faire, socialist, or other, would be best for the worst off.  Liberty and respect for others is a moral imperative whether or not it results in a utilitarian net benefit for society from an economic perspective.  Wealth is not everything.  For one, liberty is a higher good.

Why Rawls Is Devoid of Moral Perspective

A brief response to Will on Rawls:

What is wrong with Rawls’ discussion of justice is that he neglects to realize that any form of distributive justice is disrespectful of the person to whom goods are being distributed at the expense of others.  Note, I’m not saying it is unjust to the person who is forced to give something up unwillingly, which it is, but that the person to whom those goods are given is being morally demoted to the status of a thief.  If I were the worst off behind Rawls’ ”veil of ignorance” I would want people to treat me with respect.  I would not want society to rob me of whatever little bit of dignity, self-respect and integrity I may still possess.  I would want others to help me because they wanted to. I hope that I would have, or develop, some form of redeeming characteristic that would justify someone’s love, respect, willingness to help, or support.  I would be ashamed if someone was forced to help me against their will.  The realization that we all are who we are in part due to an accident of birth; that we all could have been one the worst off instead of who we are had things been different, should make us empathetic and giving, not thieves.

“Data Mining Doesn’t Catch Terrorists”

That’s the quickest summary of a paper the Cato Institute issued today, which I co-wrote with Jeff Jonas, distinguished engineer and chief scientist with IBM’s Entity Analytic Solutions Group.

Data mining is the effort to gain knowledge from patterns in data.  A retailer can use data mining to sift through past customer interactions and learn more about potential new customers, but it can’t figure out which customers will actually come into a new store.  Terrorism is so rare in society that there are no patterns to search for.  Data mining has no capability to ferret out terrorists. 

It appears that the Automated Targeting System, which made news last week (because of its previously unknown focus on American travelers), uses data mining.  It sifts through information about border-crossers to assign them a “risk score.”

In a National Journal article published last week, Secretary of Homeland Secretary Michael Chertoff discussed ATS, revealing the need for government officials to get more clear about what they are doing, what works, and what doesn’t work.  According to NJ, Chertoff called ATS “the process by which we collect that information and analyze it to see what are the patterns and the relationships that tell us, for example, that a particular telephone number is associated with a terrorist, or something of that sort.”

Comparing the number of a traveler to phone numbers of terrorists is data matching and it is not what ATS does - or at least not the interesting part of what ATS does.  Data matching, link analysis, or “pulling strings” is a proven investigative method and, as we discuss in our paper, it’s what could have prevented the attacks of 9/11.

There should be forthright public discussion about whether a program like ATS, or any data mining program, can catch terrorists.  Such a program might help fight ordinary crime, where suitable patterns may be detectable.  But whether the public would countenance mass surveillance for ordinary crime control is a different question than whether it would accept such methods to prevent terrorism.

The Wire

Today’s Washington Post has an interesting article about the HBO show, The Wire, which is one of the few bright spots on television these days, IMHO.  Excerpt:

The show’s mirror to real life has drawn a cult following, particularly among African American college students. The fourth season has piercingly showcased an ongoing failure of schools, police and government agencies to protect vulnerable kids – four friends in particular from a neighborhood that’s low on income and education and loaded with drug-dealing violence and addicted parents.

There’s plenty of politics, but there is no cant.  Gritty.  Get yourself a stocking stuffer.   More here, here, and here.

Be Wary of Late-Night Legislating

SANTA FE – I’ve received a few reports now that the bill Congress passed in the wee hours of this morning would increase the amount that most people can contribute to a health savings account (HSA). 

Most reports claim that the bill would let all those who qualify for an HSA (i.e., those with a high-deductible health insurance policy) contribute the maximum amount to their HSA ($2,850 for individuals and $5,650 for families; figures are for 2007), rather than set a lower contribution limit for those who have insurance deductibles lower than those maximum contribution limits. That’s probably a good idea, and moves HSAs in the direction we should be taking them.

However, the Washington Post reports this morning something different, and alarming.  Lori Montgomery writes:

The package also would repeal a $5,450 limit on contributions to health savings accounts, allowing taxpayers to shelter an unlimited amount of money as long as they choose certain insurance plans with high deductibles.

I doubt that description is accurate. But Thomas and the Government Printing Office don’t have copies of the full bill online yet, so you and I can’t check it out. 

If it is accurate, that means taxpayers would be able to put all their income into an HSA and only pay taxes on it when they withdraw funds for non-medical purposes. They would pay income taxes and a 10 percent tax on non-medical withdrawals. (That 10 percent tax would disappear after the account holder turns 65.) In many cases, they would pay no payroll taxes on those funds. Less money would flow into Social Security and Medicare, and many workers would accumulate fewer benefits under those programs.

All that sounds like good news to a libertarian. But it would be a messy change that would further complicate the tax code. And it would have been enacted with no public debate, which would make HSAs a prime target for the incoming Congress when Democrats might have otherwise ignored them.

But maybe what the Washington Post reported was inaccurate. I don’t know. And right now, I can’t find out. A populace that’s kept in the dark is just one of the perils of late-night legislating.

(In other health care news, that same bill would cancel a scheduled pay cut for doctors under Medicare, a prospect over which I’ve been unable to muster anything but, “So what?”)