What's the Difference?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

I have attacked libertarianism for failing to offer a principled, intellectual defense of capitalism off and on pretty much ever since I started blogging. Through Arts and Letters Daily, we have a prime example of what I am talking about: Some libertarian theoreticians are attempting to use the work of egalitarian political philosopher John Rawls (most famous for his A Theory of Justice) as a philosophical framework for capitalism!

Before I get to how these theorists -- and I wince at having to use this term to describe these "Rawlesekians" -- came to make such a leap, it might be worthwhile to briefly go over the summary of Rawl's collectivist political philosophy offered by David Gordon of The American Conservative.

The most controversial part of Rawls’s theory is the famous difference principle. (More exactly, the second part of this principle. The first part calls for equal opportunity and will not affect our discussion.) Rawls contends that people in the original position would start by wanting to distribute wealth and income equally. Why should some get more than others? Equality is the default position, but this is soon modified. People realize that we respond to incentives. If unequal incomes are allowed, this might turn out to be to the advantage of everyone. To insist on absolute equality, even if this left everyone worse off, would be cutting off one's nose to spite one’s face.

To deal with this situation, Rawls proposes that all inequalities must be to the advantage of the least well off group. Rawls was not an extreme egalitarian, content that everyone should be miserable, as long as they were equally so. But we now arrive at the fundamental presupposition of Rawls's theory. Suppose that someone objects that the difference principle is unfair. "If I am talented and am able to earn more than most people, why should my income be limited to what turns out to be best for the worst off? Do I not have the right to benefit from my superior talents?" Rawls's theory does not rule out the competitive pursuit of excellence. But he believes individuals cannot justifiably complain if they do not benefit fully from the fruits of their superior achievement.

Rawls argues that people do not deserve to reap the rewards of these talents. Tiger Woods earns millions of dollars because he is superlatively good at golf. Yet his abilities do not stem from any special virtue on his part. He was just lucky that, by some combination of heredity and environment, he ended up with superior skills. He is lucky in another respect: market demand for golf enables his talent to achieve vast returns. Because market demand for checkers players is much less, the late Marion Tinsley, whose skill at checkers was comparable to that of Woods in golf, did not earn comparable returns on his talent.

One might object that luck is not the full story. However talented he may be, Woods had to practice countless hours from his early youth to get where he is today. Does he not deserve to benefit from his hard work? Rawls has an answer that I suspect readers will find surprising. He thinks that if you have the personality trait of working hard, this too is a matter of luck. Even though Woods practiced strenuously, he does not deserve to benefit from this trait. [link and bold added]
Before I continue, I must interject that A Theory of Justice would have to be in the running for one of the most ironically-titled books of all time!

From other background in the article, Rawls conjures up his imaginary "original position" and with it, a method for creating a "fair procedure" as a way of organizing a society whose individuals may have differing conceptions of the good.

The article in The American Conservative offers the following explanation of how the libertarian theorists came to make such a leap:
Despite this collectivist principle, it is possible to interpret Rawls in a way that is quite compatible with classical liberalism. (!) One might think that an unrestricted free market best promotes the interests of the least well off class. If so, the difference principle will forbid any egalitarian redistribution of wealth or income. Raymond Geuss, a disciple of Theodor Adorno stationed at Cambridge, has denounced Rawls for this reason. Can one not use the difference principle, he asks, to justify any degree of inequality? Rawls himself does not interpret his principle this way, but his theory does not rule it out. The Rawlsekians interpret the difference principle in exactly this fashion. (Incidentally, one writer who thinks Rawls can be read in a way consistent with conservatism is the philosopher's son, Alec Rawls, though he has so far not published much on this topic.)
How society should be organized -- the question that political philosophy sets out to answer -- is a legitimate problem, but building air castles and expecting everyone to buy into them -- while "put[ting] aside their own conceptions of the good" -- is not going to solve it.

It is this fundamental -- and demonstrably wrong -- approach to political philosophy which Rawls and the libertarians share, as the words of Murray Rothbard (whom Gordon cites at one point) himself show!
... Libertarianism is a coalition of adherents from all manner of philosophic (or nonphilosophic) positions, including emotivism, hedonism, Kantian a priorism, and many others. My own position grounds Libertarianism on a natural rights theory embedded in a wider system of Aristotelian-Lockean natural law and a realist ontology and metaphysics. But although those of us taking that position believe that only it provides a satisfactory groundwork as a basis for individual liberty, this is an argument within the libertarian camp about the proper basis and grounding of Libertarianism rather than about the doctrine itself. [as cited by Peter Schwartz in "Libertarianism: The Perversion of Liberty", in The Voice of Reason, p. 315, his italics]
In other words, Rothbard, being too cowardly to make a moral stand for capitalism (or lacking one altogether), is not going to make a moral or intellectual argument in its favor. instead, he is going to pull a fast one and trick people whose views are anything but rational or pro-capitalist into "supporting" capitalism.

The article in The American Conservative conveys a sense of surprise that some libertarians would adopt Rawls's work as (what they imagine to be) a theoretical justification for (what they imagine to be) capitalism. Given how poorly-understood (via HBL) capitalism and its moral foundations generally are today, this surprise is understandable. But the only real cause for surprise is that this melding didn't occur long ago.

-- CAV

PS: The article never mentions Ayn Rand as a "libertarian" critic of Rawls. I don't know whether this is a proper omission (because she is not a libertarian) or happened for some other reason, but a few of her words on Rawls bear mention:
It is not against social institutions that Mr. Rawls ... rebels, but against the existence of human talent -- not against political privileges, but against reality -- not against governmental favors, but against nature (against "those who have been favored by nature," as if such a term as "favor" were applicable here) -- not against social injustice, but against metaphysical "injustice," against the fact that some men are born with better brains and make better use of them than others are and do.

The new "theory of justice" demands that men counteract the "injustice" of nature by instituting the most obscenely unthinkable injustice among men: deprive "those favored by nature" (i.e., the talented, the intelligent, the creative) of the right to the rewards they produce (i.e., the right to life) -- and grant to the incompetent, the stupid, the slothful a right to the effortless enjoyment of the rewards they could not produce, could not imagine, and would not know what to do with. ["An Untitled Letter" in The Ayn Rand Letter, vol. II, no. 10, p. 168, bold added]
As a note in proof of Rawls' regrettable, profound effect on contemporary society and of the correctness of Rand's interpretation of his philosophy, I refer you to a news story (via HBL) about a nine-year-old boy being driven from a baseball league.

As a partial excuse for the league's behavior is the fact that he is "too good". That boy's words, tragically, exemplify the "obscenely unthinkable injustice" Rand described: "I feel sad. I feel like it's all my fault nobody could play."

Memo to anyone who imagines libertarians to be allies in the fight for freedom: This and freedom are not fruits of the same tree.

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