Topic: Political Philosophy

The Utilitarian Calculus and Rawls

I appreciate Will’s taking the time to explain his position in even more detail, and he clearly has an exceptional grasp of Rawls’ position and its implications.  I may not be as eloquent at explaining Rawls’ position, but I’m pretty sure I do in fact understand it, and I reject his premises, his arguments, and his conclusions. Also, I’m afraid, in so far as Will’s views reflect Rawls’, I reject his as well. 

Phrases like “equal freedom,” “concern for persons,” and “optimally well-ordered society” have an enticing ring to them, but what do they really mean?   “Will writes:  His [Rawls’] libertarian First Principle of justice–basically Spencer’s principle of equal freedom–embodies this concern for persons.”  He goes on, “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.”  What a beautiful image –A society of equal freedom where everyone voluntarily agreeing to care for others and work together to optimize a well-ordered society.  Beautiful yes, but totally unrealistic.

I apologize for my crassness, but such utopian images make my skin crawl. If a group of people who shared Rawls’ or Will’s vision went off and started their own community on their own island, that would be fine with me, but that isn’t what Rawls’ has in mind, and I don’t think that is what Will is saying either.   Rawls’ believes he is elucidating the rational underpinnings of our existing social order.  Will agrees with Rawls but believes Rawl’s theory logically leads to a more “libertarian” vision than Rawls himself envisioned.  I respectfully disagree on all counts.

First, dreaming up utopias is fine, but trying to implement them is not.  Can you think of any utopian dreams which when implemented didn’t involve coercing those who didn’t quite get the idea?  I gave up on the notion of utopia building when I realized my personal utopia would have a population of one. 

Second, all appeals to utilitarian principles are essentially flawed because of our inability to agree on, rank, or calculate the goods in question.  What do the worst off need – equal freedom, food, money, shelter, respect?  Who decides?  My feeling is that people can really only decide those things for themselves, not for others.

Third, the goal should not be to create a society that provides for the worst off – it should be to create a society where everyone, the worst off, as well as all others, have the most say possible in determining their own fate in accordance with their own image of the good, not anyone else’s.

Fourth, we don’t want total chaos, but I don’t see “an optimally well-ordered society” as a worthy goal if it means restricting individuals in their various pursuits of happiness.  It is historically evident that homogeneous societies are more stable, more peaceful, function more smoothly, and have lower crime rates than heterogeneous societies, so the choices are 1) create homogeneous societies, or 2) accept and deal as best we can with the strife inherent in allowing diversity in a pluralistic society.  Government attempts to create homogeneous societies have generally been disastrous, but individuals associating with others like them voluntarily seems a viable solution, at least on the small scale.

Finally, I will tip my hand on what I see as a just society, not my ideal society, but one that I believe is realistically possible, and not too bad given the alternatives.  Of the choices listed in the above paragraph, I choose the second.  It would be boring to live in a homogeneous society.  I like the idea of a pluralistic society where people pursue many different visions of happiness, and I am more than willing to deal with the political and social strife inherent in such a system. Actually, I can’t image trading it for any single vision of the good – that is unless I can convince at least a handful of people to invest in my own personal utopia, but so far no luck on that front.

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.

If Growing Inequality Is a “Serious Problem,” Please Explain Why

Via Greg Mankiw comes this suggestion of Yale economist Robert Shiller reported in Tax Notes Today:

The IRS should be instructed to automatically adjust tax rates to keep economic inequality from getting worse, according to a new proposal outlined by Robert Shiller, a Yale University economics professor.

“We have a serious problem, and it’s a problem of growing inequality,” Shiller said on December 6 at a Library of Congress discussion in Washington. Shiller developed the proposal with Len Burman, director of the Tax Policy Center, and the two are planning to write a book on the idea.

“We need a standard or principle of income inequality. We don’t have one now,” he said. Inequality provides motivation to work harder and benefits hard work, he said, so “we do want some inequality, but we don’t have any clear idea about where we’re going and what is appropriate.”

The standard, which Shiller calls “inequality indexation” of the tax system, would instruct the IRS to adjust brackets and rates whenever inequality worsened beyond an agreed-on level.

The question that leaps to mind is: why?

Shiller’s proposal illustrates the extent to which policy is a normative enterprise.  In order to defend Shiller’s “inequality indexation,” you need some principled basis for believing that growing income inequality is a “serious problem,” and an explanation of why it is a problem. How greater inequality per se is a problem strikes me as utterly mysterious. There are many possible causes of income inequality. Some of them reflect injustices in the system, or barriers to the development of adequately fulfilling human lives. But in this case, inequality is a side-effect of some other injustice, and isn’t really the problem. And some causes of inequality don’t reflect injustice of any kind. How a change in the pattern of the income distribution over time can be a serious problem by its very nature is baffling.

Take an highly idealized example. Suppose for a moment that all of a society’s basic laws, institutions, and rules governing market exchange are fair. Everyone starts with a perfectly equal endowment of capital of various kinds, but with different preferences and goals. There will be, say, 1,000 rounds of exchange. Now start the clock. Some people will sit out some rounds. Some people will participate every round. Given different preferences, people will be motivated to invest in different forms of knowledge and skill, pursue different kinds of work, and purchase different kinds of goods and pick different kinds of trading partners. After round 1,000, stop the clock. Now count everybody’s money income over the period. There will be a certain amount of inequality in income. Start the clock again, and stop it after another 1,000 rounds. Suppose income inequality grew. What does that tell us?

If your answer is “It tells us that the laws, institutions, and rules” were not fair after all, then the question is “How does it tells us that?” And then, if the response is, “Because inequality is unfair,” that’s just begging the question. Justice and fairness, if those ideas mean anything, have something to do with giving people what they are due. If the basic rules aren’t keeping people from getting what they are due in each voluntary exchange (which would not have occurred unless the terms were satisfactory to each party), and each got what they were due every round in which they participated, then, when we stop the clock, what each ends up with over the period–their income–is just the sum of what they were due. But no one was due any particular sum. A fortiori no one was due a sum that is a particular ratio of someone else’s sum. So a change in the ratios between incomes across periods is irrelevant.

OK. Now suppose there are two social systems, A and B, with different basic rules running side by side, but in isolation from each other. A has lower inequality in each period, and lower inequality growth between periods that does B. Is A in any sense better? Maybe, maybe not. Suppose that the average income in each decile in B is higher than in A. Wouldn’t the denizens of A rather live in B, where there is greater inequality? I would. Indeed, this is the sense in which I think things like aggregate income is a matter of justice. People are due a system under which they can do as well as possible. If there is some alternative set of rules under which everyone could expect to be better off than in the status quo, failing to transition to that alternative system of rules would be a mark of injustice. Justice may require us to shoot for a system with greater inequality.

Shiller says “we do want some inequality,” since leveling would kill effort, leaving everyone worse off.  But I don’t think we really want “some inequality.” We want a system in which everyone is doing as well as possible, and inequality is going to be a side-effect of that.  Shiller needs to say why we should want less inequality. I am willing to believe that rising income inequality does reflect some injustices in the system. Perhaps some of the rules that regulate the governance of corporations. Or elements of the electoral and regulatory system that enable predatory rent-seeking. Or the system of monopoly public provision of education that systematically disadvantages certain classes of citizens on the basis of morally arbitrary characteristics, like the property tax rate in their neighborhoods. Or price floors and labor regulations that exclude low-skilled workers from the labor market. But in each case, inequality is the symptom, not the disease. The attempt to “correct” increases in inequality through the tax system is completely arbitrary, beside the point, and almost certainly itself unjust, if rising inequality is a side-effect of deeper injustice in the structure of our institutions. And if it is not a side-effect of injustice, but just a side-effect of exchange according to just rules, then it is a non-issue.

Turkish Classical Liberal Defends Himself and Free Speech

Dr. Atilla YaylaI blogged earlier about the unpleasant experiences of a Turkish friend, Professor Atilla Yayla, whose remarks got him in hot water in Turkey, including suspension from his post as a professor at Gazi University and public denunciations as a traitor.  He has now written a vigorous defense of freedom of speech in Turkey for the International Herald Tribune, “Freedom of Expression in Turkey.”  As Atilla explains,

After my fear and panic in the first few days, I think I now understand why this is happening.

I am a well-known classical liberal. I openly defend human rights for everybody. That naturally includes the rights of Kurds and conservative Muslims.

The Kemalists hate my attitude, but they are not able to challenge and refute my ideas. Their opportunity came with this event and they turned my criticism of Kemalism into an insult against Ataturk.

But Turkish journalists, cartoonists, writers and academics face more than just state ideology and trial by media. Law 5816 prohibits publicly “insulting Ataturk’s memory.” Just to be sure, Article 301 of the penal code stipulates prison for “public denigration of Turkishness, the Republic or the Grand National Assembly of Turkey” or “the Government of the Republic of Turkey, the judicial institutions of the State, the military or security structures.”

Yayla is a well known classical liberal in Turkey.  He has devoted his life to defending the rights of everyone, regardless of religion, language, nationality, ethnicity, gender, or other characteristics.  Now it’s time for others to defend his rights.