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Rawls Redux

By Jeff M. Rigsby

EVER since Professor Martin S. Feldstein '61 took over as the chief lecturer for Social Analysis 10, the course has come in for a good deal of criticism, some of it justified, for its alleged conservative bias.

The latest salvo, Steven J.S. Glick's December 9 editorial entitled, "A Perversion of Justice," charges Feldstein and his colleagues in the Economics Department with misrepresenting the work of John Rawls, whose ideas about social justice have revolutionized modern political philosophy. Unfortunately, Glick's own article seems more likely to aggravate confusion over the Rawlsian theory than to help clear it up.

At issue is the so-called "Difference Principle," the Rawlsian criterion for judging the fairness of economic institutions. A society governed by the Difference Principle will permit economic inequalities only to the extent that they benefit the worst-off members of society. Income and wealth must be redistributed to the poor from more advantaged citizens up to the point of diminishing returns--that is, until the harmful "supply-side" effects of heavy taxation begin to undermine the economic prospects of the lower classes themselves.

The Difference Principle should have a powerful intuitive appeal for citizens of a democratic society. Since none of us can control the random factors of genetics, family background, and plain dumb luck that determine our earning power and financial resources, it seems clearly unjust to let the disadvantaged "lose" in an economic lottery which no one has any power to avoid.

Rawls assumes that all citizens begin with an equal right to share in the world's material goods, and his principle permits departures from that equality only when the poor themselves are benefitted, or at least not harmed. The interests of society's least fortunate members can never be sacrificed for the sake of those already better off, since this would violate the democratic principle of treating all citizens as equals.

THE EC 10 problem set which Glick criticizes is intended to illustrate this principle. Should a nation of 100 people choose an economic system (let's call it the Great Society) which provides every citizen with an income of $2, or a less drastically egalitarian one, which provides 99 citizens with $100,000 apiece and only $1 for the last unlucky stiff?

The Difference Principle tells us to choose the former, says Ec 10--and that's where Glick gets off the bus. "What lunacy!" he writes. "I would never choose to live under such constraints."

But would he? Remember, Rawls wants us to choose our political institutions without knowing in advance what place we'll end up holding in the world we design, so it's not enough to say that citizens of the wealthier society are better off "on average." Each of us has only one life to live, and there is no evening-out process that can allow us, the 99 comfortable members of the Pretty-Good Society, to justify our choice to the wretched hundredth, or to ignore the connection between our wealth and that individual's poverty. Again, the real-world intuition behind Rawls' logic should be clear. When was the last time you looked a homeless person in the eye?

Glick complains that the problem set creates an unfair dilemma, since it assumes that income redistribution entails enormous social costs. He asks us to imagine instead that slicing the pie more equally won't shrink it at all, allowing him to hand the citizens of the Rawlsian economy a hefty $99,000 each. Surely, he suggests, the nefarious authors of Ec 10 problem sets could only have come up with the original example as a ploy to discredit the Difference Principle.

The problem set's figures are exaggerated, of course, but Glick's alternative seems to miss the point completely. In an economic system where redistribution was easy and painless, it would be a straightforward matter to forbid any inequality whatsoever. It's precisely because redistribution does require trade-offs that Rawls' theory needs the Difference Principle at all, as a democratic check on the inequalities which no economic system can do without.

The real problem seems to lie, not with the Difference Principle or with Ec 10's examination of it, but with Glick's failure to recognize how radical the Rawlsian theory really is.

Rawls does not simply demand, as Glick puts it, that "the inequalities in society be harnessed to provide some benefit to the poor." Rather, the interests of the poor are the only justification for those inequalities, and if their standard of living can be raised at all, then no sacrifice is too great on the part of those better off. If Martin Feldstein and his section leaders think this idea is self-evidently ridiculous, maybe they--and Glick--should think again.

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