Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Egalitarianism and Rawls' Second Principle of Justice

**This is from guest blogger, Kyle S.**

In the work “A Theory of Justice,” John Rawls provides what else but a theory of justice which he refers to as “justice as fairness.” In the broadest strokes possible, essentially his theory states that apt models of justice align with certain principles of fairness, while sub-par models align with principles which would be considered unfair. Leaving how he unpacks the rest of that theory for you at home to read for yourself, what concerns me the most about his theory is actually his second principle of justice, which states: “...social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone's advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all...”        The second half of this principle seems to me all well and good, but what precedes it seems ambiguous at best. While Rawls is adamant that his theory of justice allows for social and economic inequalities between persons, it seems as though this cannot possibly be the case given his theory's construction.

Clearly, for those who wish for pure social and economic egalitarianism, this aspect of Rawls' principle wouldn't be problematic. However, for those who believe that social and economic inequality, particularly the latter, is just, it would seem that Rawls' theory necessarily begets a world in which such inequality would eventually cease to exist. Looking at only economic inequality for simplicity's sake, take a state of nature, much like the one Rawls himself refers to in his work, wherein everyone begins as a blank economic slate. Now, I'm admittedly no economist, but if there's one thing I know about money, it's that there is a finite amount of it at any given time. While governments can and do print and circulate new currency into the market, at any given time, everyone works from the same pool of currency, meaning that when one entity acquires currency, at least one other entity looses currency. Accordingly, it would seem, when economic inequalities arise, one party is necessarily at a disadvantage while another is necessarily at an advantage, speaking strictly in terms of the economic value each hold, namely the currency they own. Rawls himself states that a purely egalitarian state of nature acts as a “benchmark for judging improvements,” but again, if we were to start from such a position, it's difficult to see how certain income inequalities could actually benefit those whose income level drops from that egalitarian starting point.

The only thing I can think of which may act as a counterexample to this criticism would be that those whose income level drops would still be made “better” by the increase in income in others through non-economic means. Professions which receive higher pay grades could become more competitive, and assuming skill in those professions were indeed something valued greatly by those who utilized the services offered by those of those professions, such as doctors, then the incentive for improvement would make sense as it would beget better doctors, and thus better treatment for those non-doctors who make significantly less income than there doctoral counterparts. The problem with this counterexample is that there's no way to guarantee that those who hold these professions wouldn't strive to improve their work should they not be incentivized financially. Furthermore, it is unclear whether or not the good begotten by the improvement in the quality of these professionals' work would be of enough benefit to offset what economic disadvantages their increased pay would cause others. Given the ambiguity of what “benefits” economic inequality would yield for those who'd receive the short end of the stick, it seems that introducing inequality to a pure state of egalitarianism would be an endeavor one would at best approach with trepidation, if not forgo entirely.

1 comment:

Larry D said...

You make a really good point of bringing up the problem of incentives--Rawls doesn't offer up a way to design the system in a way that people would actually be convinced that others recieving more would be to their benefit, or even to convince people with these skills tot ake those jobs and work for the benefit of least advantaged. Another question I have is whether the Difference Principle and Fair Equality of Opportunity are actually both possible within the system, or whether they would conflict--if they do conflict, which principle would Rawls give weight to? (I would think the difference principle).