Rawls… an egalitarian or socialist?

John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Law of Peoples and lots of other great stuff…

Rawls would love the People’s Coffee Shop... you can go read that post over on Leftyconcarne…

Ralws’ basic idea is that the social contract ought to have provisions to protect those who have the least in society.  If you want to know a lot more, read the Stanford Encyclopedia entry on Rawls...

In order to support his theory, Rawls constructs a thought experiment,  the original position.  In the OP, persons know generally the essentials necessary for life and what makes life good for people.  They don’t know their specific ideas and position in society, but they do know what people in general value about their lives.  Rawls thinks that principles acceptable in the OP will also be acceptable in our daily lives.

In light of the original position / veil of ignorance, he develops two basic principles.. roughly:
1) Everyone should have the same basic liberties, as long as exercising those liberties doesn’t infringe on the liberties of others.

2) Economic opportunities should be open to everyone and economic inequalities should be resolved in favor of those who are the least well-off.

#1 is generally considered a negative right — because, in essence, it’s the right to be left alone to do what you’d like to do.  This includes political freedom, freedom of and from religion and the freedom to live a lifestyle of your choosing.  The only caveat is that your choices can’t prevent others from making similar or different choices.

#2 is generally considered a positive right — because it may end up that some folks owe other folks something.  The first part of it is pretty much a non-discrimination clause.  The second part ends up requiring that the poor have a minimally decent standard of living.

Some people read #2 as Rawls arguing for egalitarianism — the idea that all people have the same economic opportunities as others.  I think this is wrong.  Rather, it seems to me that he’s arguing for more of a democratic socialist view of the world.  Inequalities are permissible IF and ONLY IF those inequalities are to the benefit of all (including the worst off) — so, it’s permissible to pay a brain surgeon more money because everyone is better off if some people want to do the work.  By contrast, highly paid pop stars, celebrities and athletes don’t necessarily earn their high salaries by being of benefit to all — at least not enough to justify the differences in their income as opposed to the average income of the society.

Thus, Rawls is a socialist and not an egalitarian.

In case you’re wondering, I think Rawls is pretty freaking smart!!

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