Rawls had two baisc concepts — 1) we should all be given the maximum amount of freedom possible to live our lives the way we’d like, as long as our freedom doesn’t impact other people. 2) Opportunities should be equally available to all, and inequalities in distribution ought to be resolved so that they benefit the lest well-off in society. I’m paraphrasing here, but that’s the gist of it (see other sources for direct quotes).
I’d like to talk about the last part of 2). It’s easy to see how this could be interpreted to imply the need for some kind of radical egalitarianism, a situation in which nobody has any more than anybody else. That’s not quite the case. What it means is that we ought to avoid situations in which some people have very little and others have a lot — UNLESS changing that would make things worse for everyone.
Think about this example — Brain surgeons (I seem to be writing a lot about that lately..). Becoming a brain surgeon takes a combination of mental and physical skills that I don’t have. It takes a long time to become a trained brain surgeon and it’s a very stressful proposition to have that much riding on your skills. If you’re good, you’ll save a life and if you aren’t, you’ll kill someone. That’s the kind of pressure I don’t want.
IF, as a society, we’ve decided that we need brain surgeons — we need to have a system that compensates them better than philosophy professors — because, it’s a more demanding training process and the job itself is more demanding. Thus, we ought to pay them more. IF we decided not to pay them more, we’d lose them to teaching philosophy and our society would be in need of them. In other words, resolving the difference in income would create a situation in which society as a whole is less well-off.
On the other hand, it seems that we pay people like Justin Bieber and Myley Siris a lot of money — for what? If we didn’t pay them, and others like them so much, would they continue doing their thing?? Probably, and if we lost Justin and Myley in the process, would our society be less well-off, I think not.
SO, we can justify either paying them less or taxing them a lot more to make their net-income more in line with other folks. That’s the general idea.
What we do with that tax income is important — according to Rawls, we ought to spend it on a viable social safety net. We should make sure that everyone has a decent place to live, food to eat, clothes on their backs, and their kids can go to decent schools. Yes, even if they don’t work — everyone should get this.
We do need to be careful to balance what folks get from not working so that too many people don’t decide to do the no-work option, because then our whole society would be less well-off.
It does seem to me that we could do better than we do now (and other countries have done so). It also seems to me that we’ve done a terrible job of insuring that there isn’t a huge gap between the wealthy and the rest of us, but that’s a post for another time.