I’ve noticed that a lot of people who only have a fairly passing familiarity with political philosophy think that John Rawls is a lot more radically egalitarian than he actually is (For example, here‘s the first crazy looking misrepresentation of Rawls I found in a Google search [the author claims to have an MA and Ph.D; I think it’s safe to assume that neither of those are in philosophy]). Perhaps the cause of this distortion is the way Rawls and Nozick are commonly put forth as representing the two main sides in the modern distributive justice debate, with Rawls on the left and Nozick on the right.

In light of this confusion, it’s important to emphasize how un-radical Rawls’s view is (a fact that gets Rawls a lot of heat from philosophers who are actually leftist).  It’s the second half of Rawls’s second principle of justice, the Difference Principle, that is at the root of a lot of confusion about his views:  “Social and economic inequalities are to be to the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged members of society” (JF, 42-43).  As I was just reading the Rawls entry on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, I came across this helpful chart:

Economy Least-Advantaged Group Middle Group Most-Advantaged Group
A 10,000 10,000 10,000
B 12,000 15,000 20,000
C 20,000 30,000 50,000
D 17,000 50,000 100,000

The difference principle, according to the article, “selects Economy C, because it contains the distribution where the least-advantaged group does best”.  In fact, to find out which distribution the difference principle would choose, you don’t even have to be able to see the last two columns.  The difference principle focuses only on the disadvantaged, and does not make any judgment at all about how much the wealthy should have compared to the least well off.  The are plenty of interesting and legitimate objections that one can make to the difference principle, of course, but I think that most people tend to greatly overestimate the extent to which it is egalitarian.

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