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Can Rawlsian Democracy Coexist with Markets?

The most influential book in contemporary political philosophy remains, after nearly fifty years, John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, supplemented and modified by his later Political Liberalism. As readers no doubt know, Rawls isn’t very friendly to the free market. This raises a problem for some people. They are political philosophers themselves and, like most ...

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The most influential book in contemporary political philosophy remains, after nearly fifty years, John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, supplemented and modified by his later Political Liberalism. As readers no doubt know, Rawls isn’t very friendly to the free market. This raises a problem for some people. They are political philosophers themselves and, like most members of the guild, they admire Rawls. But they also support the free market. What should they do? One way out would be to abandon either Rawls or the free market. (They might also abandon both.) But what if doing this doesn’t appeal to them? What if they want both Rawls and the free market? Then they need to show that you use Rawls to support the free market. In this week’s article, I’m going to look at an attempt to do just that: John Tomasi’s book Free Market Fairness. Tomasi is a distinguished political philosopher who teaches at Brown University

Rawls calls his system “justice as fairness,” and Tomasi tells us that “once it has been adjusted and corrected according to market democratic principles, it is the conception of liberal justice I find most compelling." In order to understand Tomasi's claim and to judge its success, it is important to grasp what market democracy means. It is by no means the same as the free market you will find in Mises and Rothbard. He favors a social minimum funded by taxation and also favors government support of education, e.g., through a voucher plan.

Even if Tomasi isn’t a full supporter of the free market, doesn’t his position differ entirely from that of Rawls, who expressly repudiates as inadequate the "system of natural liberty"? How then can Tomasi arrive at a Rawlsian defense of market democracy?

Tomasi's answer is not the obvious one that will first occur to most readers. Rawls's difference principle allows inequalities that make the worst-off class in society better off than they would otherwise be. Suppose that a great deal of inequality turns out to be to the advantage of the worst off because, e.g., economic incentives strongly motivate people. Wouldn’t we have a Rawlsian justification of inequality?

We very well might; but this is not the line that Tomasi takes. The point just considered depends on an empirical hypothesis about how people in the actual world are motivated. Tomasi prefers to operate at a higher level of abstraction. What he has in mind is this. Rawls's own social democratic views are simply interpretations of his theory of justice. If we accept Rawls's principles of justice, we aren’t bound by Rawls's own views about how these principles are to be implemented, and the door to a market democratic interpretation of Rawls lies open.

For each of Rawls's principles of justice, then, Tomasi offers an interpretation congenial to market democracy. Rawls's first principle specifies a set of liberties that enjoys lexical priority to the distributive requirements of the second principle. (This means that you have to satisfy the first principle before moving to the second; you can’t trade off liberty for distributive fairness.) Rawls does not include rights to acquire and hold productive property among the set, but Tomasi does. The ability to engage in business often proves an excellent way to develop one's moral powers. Why, then, exclude it from the list of protected liberties?

Tomasi offers his own understanding of the other Rawlsian principles. For fair equality of opportunity, Tomasi stresses the need for each person to have a wide variety of choices, as opposed to efforts to counter the effects of status. For the difference principle, he emphasizes the need to increase through economic growth the wealth of the worst-off class. He opposes efforts to reduce inequalities directly, e.g., through progressive taxation.

Tomasi's political program is better than Rawls's own program, but I don’t think that Tomasi succeeds in making a Rawlsian case for market democracy. The problem is that Tomasi does not take adequate account of the originality of Rawls's approach to political philosophy.

The situation that drives Rawls to his theory is that of people in a large society like the United States who are divided by conflicting conceptions of the good. Some of these conceptions may be better than others, and one may in fact be the correct one: Rawls does not commit himself on this question. But none of these conceptions can be shown to be true in the strong sense that it would be unreasonable for anyone to reject it. This state of affairs Rawls terms "the fact of reasonable pluralism."

Given reasonable pluralism, it would be wrong for the holders of one conception to impose their views on others; respect for others requires that we defend our political views with reasons others could acknowledge. Our aim, Rawls holds, should not be a mere modus vivendi with those who profess other conceptions of the good. Rather, we should seek a stable society in which people decide disputed questions by democratic discussion.

He intends the principles of justice to give the conditions under which such democratic decisions can take place. Rawls’ key idea is that by inquiry into the conditions of a stable regime, given the fact of reasonable pluralism, you can avoid appeals to controversial moral intuitions or problematic moral theories like utilitarianism. His approach to justification is "political, not metaphysical."

To adopt a Rawlsian account of justice, you have to accept democratic participation in a strong sense. For Rawls, the people in a society are bound to one another by special ties and decide political questions together. The echoes of Rousseau here are not accidental.

Tomasi is not committed to this sort of democracy. People on his account need not value at all the process of deciding questions together with other citizens (though of course they are not precluded from doing this.) He is entirely right that productive business activity has great value; but this claim, right or not, derives from a particular conception of the good, not from asking for the presuppositions of democratic decision making under the condition of reasonable pluralism. In the same way, the egalitarian implications Rawls finds in his principle of fair equality of opportunity and in the difference principle are not simply interpretations of his own theory by Rawls that reflect his distaste for wealth. Rather, once more they are plausibly taken as necessary conditions for the type of democratic participation Rawls favors.

Why does any of this matter? Suppose Tomasi responds that he rejects the democratic solidarity that Rawls wishes to promote. If he does this, though, then his defense of his interpretations of political liberty, fair equality of opportunity, and the difference principle depend on his own conception of the good. Like most political philosophers, he is reduced to his own moral intuitions or moral theory. He has abandoned the distinctive Rawlsian method of political justification.

I do not at all contend that he is wrong to do so: I am not a Rawlsian. But Tomasi ought to be clear that, though he has adopted some Rawlsian themes, he has proceeded in an un-Rawlsian way. Many of the words of Rawls are present in Tomasi's book, but not the music.

David Gordon
David Gordon (born 1948) is an American libertarian philosopher and intellectual historian influenced by Rothbardian views of economics. Peter J. Boettke, in his Reason Foundation "Reason Papers," Issue No. 19, Fall 1994, describes Gordon as "a philosopher and intellectual historian who is deeply influenced by the Rothbardian strand of economics." He is a senior fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute and editor of The Mises Review.

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