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.

Egalitarians often point to wealth inequality as a sign that society is not doing enough to improve the conditions of the poorest. But inequality and standard of living are completely different and should be treated as two separate issues.

I remember in my AP political science class we were told that psychology tests proved that people – despite what they believed – were more concerned about relative wealth than absolute wealth. In other words, picture these two situations: I get $40 and you get $70 in situation A. In situation B, I get $30 and you get $45. In Situation A, we both have more money. We are both wealthier in absolute terms. In situation B, the inequality of our respective wealths is less, but our absolute wealth is lower; on the other hand, my relative wealth is better in B than in situation A.

I think – or at least I hope – that we all can agree that situation A is a preferred outcome, since both of us have more money which means a better standard of living (in the material sense).

One of the biggest fallacies about economics is that it is a zero-sum game. What I mean by this is that if I become ten dollars richer, I have taken it away from someone else. In other words, Bill Gates having X billions of dollars means that we are X billions of dollars poorer. Au contraire!

Market economies thrive on quite the opposite; the total amount of wealth in society is never a fixed amount. The idea is, at least in theory, that instead of artificially redistributing the “slices of pie,” making “the pie” bigger is a better way to help the worst-off in society (as Rawls himself even admitted). History, I believe, is on my side when comparing capitalism with extreme socialism or communism: the poor in the Soviet Union, East Germany, North Korea, or any African socialist utopia are much worse off than in America. In the last few decades, China and India have lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty by embracing market reforms. At the same time, wealth inequality has increased. Shouldn’t that be considered a necessary evil instead of something to combat, at the possible expense of further growth?

In my internship this summer for an education think tank, I remember reading a great piece (though I can’t find it now) arguing that achievement gaps shouldn’t be considered as much as proficiency gaps between races/income groups. In other words, instead of caring about the difference in test scores between rich kids and poor kids, we should just be making sure that every child is proficient in all the necessary areas. Caring about the achievement gap can create a false sense of progress, as Carson noted in a previous post, because if the best-off people actually decrease their well-being the inequality has gone down without actually improving the standard of living for the worst-off.

Ok, so that’s my first point: absolute wealth should be considered over relative wealth. But the measurements by which we look at inequality also need to be reconsidered. Will Wilkinson recently wrote an excellent paper questioning the often-reported rise inequality in the United States, saying that, among other things:

  1. The level of real economic inequality is lower than popular treatments of the issue have led many of us to think.
  2. The level of economic inequality is an unreliable indicator of a society’s justice or injustice.
  3. Inequality distracts us from real injustices that are given too little attention.

Check it out if you’ve got time.

An example of a pie that can represent wealth distribution

An example of a pie that can represent wealth distribution

After my display of Robert Nozick’s “Wilt Chamberlain example”, Carson expressed how he finds the argument to not be completely convincing. Now, in yet another piece of commentary on social justice, I respond to Carson’s post.

Unlike Carson, where I disagree with Nozick is his most primary premise: that people undeniably have rights. The first paragraph of the preface to Anarchy, States and Utopia reads:

Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them.


Such a fact is necessary to accept Nozick’s arguments. But do rights actually exist? I’m not saying that I think people should be censored, raped, have their entire wealth confiscated by the government, or have no protection of their property. It’s not the end-state of “rights” that I disagree with. It’s the connotation that rights carry that says there are certain things inherently given and protected by nature. Most arguments for “Natural Rights” come from an idea that rights are something granted by God to man and no one or government can take them away from us. But who says God even exists?

Also, if all humans are really granted rights by nature doesn’t that mean that there is a sort of objective list of rights that we can come up with? If rights are so inherent, doesn’t that mean that they don’t change with time, culture, or context? If so, aren’t the things that we consider rights today – freedom of speech, freedom to choose one’s direction in life, or freedom to own property – recent successes of humanity (and mostly in the developed world)? Slavery existed for the vast majority of the world’s history. Women suffrage has been the exception, not the norm. Serfdom, feudalism, and monarchy have defined civilizations much more than any sort of citizen ownership. Does this mean that the rights always existed but no one ever knew them or respected them? If they were always there but couldn’t be enforced, doesn’t that make them essentially worthless?

Right now, we set 18 as the age of consent for most things in the United States. But in the middle ages, because of short life expectancy I presume, the age of consent for most things was instead 13 years old, which made sense at the time. Does this mean that rights change with context or, more specifically, the life expectancy of certain societies? It sure makes it hard to defend a case that rights are objective and inherent wherever you are.

Instead, I agree with Jeremy Bentham’s belief that rights are mere “nonsense upon stilts”, a social construct of sorts that have come about from our recognition that respecting such privileges of all citizens are to the benefit of everyone. But NOT because they are God-given or objective. Like Bentham said,

Right…is the child of law: from real laws come real rights.

In other words, “rights” are only as good as the laws that protect them.

Carson is right, no really would argue for absolute rights and the idea of them is absurdity. But equally extreme utilitarian arguments are just as nonsensical. Example: If the organs of one living person could be used to save ten dying people who needed transplants, society would have better utility. But I don’t think many people would argue that doing such a thing would be justified. Arguing against taking the organs for utilitarian arguments like “well, we shouldn’t do that because actually society will overall be worse off if they know the state could take their organs” are pretty weak. With that logic, one could argue for anything based on the idea that it’s better for society, based on completely subjective and inconclusive premises.

Again, I’m not saying that what we conceive as rights should be ignored just because I don’t agree with the justification for their existence. I am, however, skeptical to design society based on a faulty premise.

Nonetheless, I do think that my point from my original post on the Chamberlain example stands true: we cannot have a society designed on end-state principles without constant interference of people’s personal lives. Liberty does upset patterns.