Note: if you already understand Rawls’ system, feel free to skip to section 2.
Rawls’ A Theory of Justice
John Rawls is almost universally described as the most influential political philosopher of the 20th century. To understand his influence, just consider that the UN Chronicle, official magazine of the United Nations, published an article in 2016 which says: “To realize sustainable peace and stability in post-conflict countries, the United Nations has basically accepted and followed the political and moral philosophy developed by John Rawls in 1971.”
Rawls is famous for his book, A Theory of Justice, where he tries to reconcile the two central, but competing, values of liberal democracy – liberty and equality. Since policies which increase liberty, like eliminating a requirement to buy health insurance, tend to also reduce equality, we must have some way to balance these competing values. In order to do this, Rawls develops principles of justice which he believes should guide policies and institutions in society. However, we’re still left with a problem: which principles of justice should we accept, especially given lots of disagreements about justice in the real world?
To resolve these disagreements, Rawls argues that we should accept those principles that hypothetical people would agree to in an artificial situation that he calls the original position. What stipulations would we put on such a situation? Well, first we would want these actors to be perfectly rational so that we don’t base our principles of justice on mistakes in reasoning. Moreover, we would imagine that these actors don’t know who they will be in they society they are designing. So, Rawls thinks that this will lead them to exclude obviously unjust situations, like slavery, since the actors do not know whether they will be slaves or not. He calls this stipulation the veil of ignorance.
Notably for our discussion in the next section, Rawls also believes that principles of justice should be determined under ideal theory. That is, the actors in the original position should assume that all people in society are generally committed to follow whatever principles are chosen, and that law-breaking does not occur. Furthermore, they should assume that there are generally favorable social conditions that foster cooperation between people. Once we decide upon principles in ideal theory, we will have learned better how to deal with non-ideal circumstances, according to Rawls.
Under these stipulations, Rawls decides on two principles (which, just to confuse people, have been given three different names). They are:
First Principle: Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all.
Second Principle: Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both: (a) to the greatest beneﬁt of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle, and (b) attached to ofﬁces and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.
The first principle is often called the greatest equal liberty principle. In the second, (a) is called the difference principle, and (b) is called the equal opportunity principle. Rawls thinks that perfectly rational actors in the original position would all agree to these principles, so they constitute a theory of justice.
As the UN Chronicle quote suggests, these principles have been considered a defense of liberal democracies, especially Canada and those in Europe. There have long been classical liberal (and other) defenses of the idea that a government with a court system is required to defend something like the greatest equal liberty principle. For instance, this principle excludes the liberty to murder, since you must be alive (have the right to life) in order to murder, and murdering denies another the right to life. So a system of liberty which contained both the right to life and the right to murder would not be compatible with a “similar system of liberty for all”. However, without a government, many believe it would be hard to efficiently prevent murders and stop murderers.
However, this principle only gets us a libertarian state which protects basic liberties. The difference principle is (mainly) what Rawls uses to justify welfare systems and income redistribution. Since any social and economic inequalities must result in the worst off being as well-off as possible, Rawls thinks that this excludes extreme economic inequalities and requires redistribution for the rich to help the poor.
Critiquing Ideal Theory
Recently, I was able to attend a seminar where Dr. Chris Freiman presented one of the central ideas of his most recent book, Unequivocal Justice. I haven’t gotten to read the book yet, but I plan to whenever my schedule loosens up a bit (and it’s gotten some rave reviews).
In his talk, Freiman took issue with Rawls’ use of ideal theory. Basically, his criticism was that, if we stipulate that everyone in society acts in accordance with justice and social conditions exist to foster cooperation, there is no need for a coercive state in the first place. So, to justify the existence of a state, we must do non-ideal theory. However, under non-ideal theory, we can’t just assume the innate justness of state actors – that is, we have to take into account the potentially imperfect nature of those in positions of power, as well as the inefficiencies associated with government actions. In his words (quoted by Jason Brennan):
Coercion is needed to defend justice only when society is less than fully just. But when society is less than fully just, we cannot stipulate the ideal justness of the state itself. So we arrive at the dilemma for ideal theories of the state: either (i) society is fully just, in which case there is no need for a state, or (ii) society is not fully just, in which we case we may not stipulate the state itself is just.
Brennan then summarizes the main thrust of the book as follows:
In the end, the mistake is that Rawls is trying to make a priori arguments for institutions, regime-types, and rules. These arguments all fail. They are no substitute for doing careful PPE [Philosophy Politics and Economics]-style empirical institutional analysis. Freiman closes by warning left-liberals not just to presume that empirical analysis will vindicate the exact institutions they were defending on entirely a priori grounds.
Putting the A priori in Anarchism
However, I could imagine one taking the other horn of Freiman’s dilemma. Such a person would agree with Rawls that a priori examinations within ideal theory are required to determine principles of justice, and they could use any arguments that Rawls provides for this stipulation. For example, they may say that we need to use idealization, instead of examining existing institutions alone, in order to get a better conception of what societies are possible.
But, here they would depart from Rawls and agree more with Freiman. Instead of using ideal theory to a justify the welfare state, it would justify an anarchism which meets Rawls’ two principles of justice. Their nonideal, practical theory then would be focused on developing nongovernmental institutions (e.g., firms, coops, mutual aid organizations, etc.) that could preserve both principles if widely adopted, as well as outline how to decrease the power of government in crucial areas. I imagine that this would look, in practice, like a mix of social anarchism and anarcho-capitalism, because of the balancing of liberty and equality present in Rawls. It might even turn out similarly to the advocacy of the Center for a Stateless Society.
I’d really be interested to see if Freiman addresses this in his book – or perhaps to those used to doing political theory would see this as a further reductio ad absurdum of ideal theory. Interestingly, there’s also an article from the Mises Institute that argues for Rawlsian anarchy as well.