What’s so funny about peace, Rawls and understanding?

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Turns out that I am not the only libertarian with an interest in John Rawls. David Gordon laid out the thinking of a small group of libertarian Rawlsians in this American Conservative article back in 2004.

Greg- talk me off the ledge before I jump!

10 Responses to What’s so funny about peace, Rawls and understanding?

  1. Collin Hitt says:


    It seems your interest in Rawls has revolved around his legendary thought experiment, the “Veil of Ignorance.” Someone should tell you that James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock pioneered this concept in Chapter 6 of the Calculus of Consent, published several years before Rawls’ Theory of Justice. Their concept went on to be called the veil of uncertainty, which was much more realistic – though far less publicized – than Rawls’ concept. Read Buchanan and Tullock, then tell your libertarian soul to rest easy.

  2. matthewladner says:

    Whew! Good to know.

  3. Greg Forster says:

    The two great demolitions of Rawls are chapters 7-9, especially Part II of Chapter 7, of Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia and Allan Bloom’s book reveiw of A Theory of Justice, later printed in his essay collection Giants and Dwarfs. Between Nozick’s libertarian hammer and Bloom’s classicist anvil, there’s barely enough of Rawls left to identify with dental records.

    Nozick’s most important point is that the goal of government can never be a state of affairs in society at large (e.g. the state we would want if we were behind the veil of ignorance) but can only be the maintenance of a process (e.g. a system for punishing violence, theft and fraud). Government lacks both the moral right and the ability to produce a desired state of affairs in society at large. And if you give up on producing a desired state of affairs in society at large, you’re not really using the veil of ignorance at all.

    Bloom’s most important point, if memory serves (it’s been a while) is that Rawls’s whole structure unconsciously presupposes moral commitments that Rawls’s own theory can’t justify, and he’s able to get away with this becasue those moral presuppositions are widely diffused among Rawls and his audience – by the influence of the very same traditional moral belief systems that Rawls thinks he’s rejecting. Unless traditional moral principles are presupposed, Rawls is vaccuous. For example, Rawls asserts that his “veil of ignorance/maximin” principle is morally obligatory because the existence of society depends on the consent of all its members, so when the poor demand the implentation of maximin, the rich ought to go along with it in recognition of the fact that the consent of the poor is equally necessary to society. But (Bloom points out) the shoe could just as easily be on the other foot; when the rich demand that we not implement maximin, the poor should go along with this in recognition of the fact that the consent of the rich is equally necessary to society.

  4. matthewladner says:

    Very interesting.

    Matthew Miller’s reading of Rawls seems to concede Nozick’s points. He for instance points out that Rawls explicitly says that he believes that there ought to be a process for educating children, but not what the method should be (public schools or vouchers) or even ultimately the outcomes.

    Miller basically makes the point that if you have the misfortune of being born to a single parent in Detroit, you want a method for obtaining an education and that DPS is a trainwreck and vouchers would be far better.

    Miller’s reading is very focused on opportunity rather than ultimate outcomes, which sounds more like a focus on process rather than an insistence on absolute equality. Plato’s version of Socrates….errrr…. I mean Miller’s version of Rawls is much more about equality of opportunity rather than of results.

  5. Joel Vincent says:

    If I may comment:

    As a young libertarian, I have always thought that the “veil of ignorance” was an interesting thought experiment as well. I think that if the experiment were conducted the outcome would be a classically liberal form of government. The truth is, there probably would not be very much agreement between different people(with very different previous experiences) on what this government should look like. Assuming that this government could only be made up of items that were agreed upon, this government would be small, and undoubtedly protect only the most basic rights (i.e. a libertarian’s ideal form of government). If you say that these designers of government are to have no previous experience to make judgments based on, then you have to realize that you are no longer talking about real humans. People only have any concept of the basic tenants of government (or poverty, wealth, etc. ) as a result of experience, and to strip them of this makes the whole idea absurd.

    I still do think that perhaps, as it has been pointed out, many of the principles of this experiment are flawed, but maybe this is just one more way to argue for classical liberalism.

    Of course, it is no surprise that Rawls made the assumptions he did about what people would choose, because he falls into that ironic and annoying brand of the left leaning: those born wealthy. It is easy to misunderstand wealth as something that is unfairly distributed, when you are enjoying someone else’s.

  6. Greg Forster says:

    Well, another major problem, which we haven’t really talked about, is how you determine risk tolerance behind the veil of ignorance. Most people prefer to have some level of risk to create some opportunity for reward rather than take a 100% certainty of mediocrity. But the level of risk different people are willing to tolerate varies considerably. And of course some people really do value security highly enough to take the 100% certainty of mediocrity over any level of risk. So even behind the veil of ignorance, we would expect a tremendous amount of disagreement as to what kind of society we’d want to create.

    Rawls got around this problem by assuming that risk tolerance is itself a product of social conditions, such that people behind the veil of ignorance would have zero risk tolerance. Hence he thinks the veil of ignorance requires the “maximin” principle, by which all things are judged right or wrong exclusively based on whether they improve the condition of the least-well-off person. Rawls is essentially nothing but abject cowardice, systematized and socialized – Hobbes to the Nth.

    But more broadly, the question here is why you support libertarianism. Because freedom is a moral imperative, or because freedom maximizes the production and distribution of goodies? If freedom is a moral imperative, say goodbye to the veil of ignorance, which assumes that all possible social systems are on an equal footing except with regard to the production and distribution of goodies.

  7. Joel Vincent says:

    I have been thinking about why I support libertarianism, because it is a moral imperative, or because it works?

    When you speak of a moral imperative, I assume that you are referring to an absolute truth. But if you believe that libertarian ideology is built on absolute truth, such as a moral imperative to protect freedom, wouldn’t you expect that ideology to produce the form of government that works the best economically, and is also the most ethical?

    Being a scientific person, I tend to go the opposite direction. I observe things and then theorize truth from these observations. As such, I believe that I have observed (through experience and research) that a society that protects personal liberty and property also maximizes wealth and quality of life. From this perhaps, one can theorize about things such as inherent moral truth, and their origins.

    I believe that Rawl’s veil of ignorance also relies on a certain amount of inherent truth because it supposedly relies on what people would inherently desire in a government if they were perfectly free to choose. I think though that he was hypocritical, in that he then imposed rules on what these people must decide by way of the Maximin principle.

  8. Greg Forster says:

    Ah, but your empirical observations presuppose a great deal of inherent truth. Even if we sidestep the enormous thicket of epistemological questions, where did you get the presupposition that political systems are to be chosen on the basis of which one maximizes wealth and quality of life? Numerous other criteria have been advocated; in fact, maximization of wealth and quality of life is neither the majority preference among the total population nor the view that has the wisest and most venerable advocates. That fact, of course, is not an argument against it per se. A thing can be true even if neither the majority nor the wisest believe in it. However, it does establish that the burden of proof is on you to justify it. If you want to proceed on the assumption that both the world at large and the wisest and best thinkers are all decieved whereas you, fortunately, happen to possess the truth, you’d better have a darn good reason for thinking so.

    Empirical observation can tell you which system produces the outcome you want, but it can’t tell you what outcome you ought to want.

    That was the point I was getting at with my original question. What is the criterion you seek to maximize? Wealth and well-being? Or justice? Personally, I would rather have a just social order with miserable poverty than an unjust social order with fabulous wealth. But then, I suppose that may be the very reason I’m a classical liberal rather than a libertarian. Maybe the difference between the two is in whether you prefer justice to wealth.

    Now, as it happens, a classically liberal social order does maximize both wealth and justice at the same time. But it still matters which of those we value more, because we need to have a right understanding of how the world works and what are our duties (and the government’s duties) within it.

    • Joel Vincent says:

      I see your point. I was assuming that there would be consensus that wealth and quality of life were central goals of government, but in retrospect I can understand how some might disagree, especially with regards to wealth.

      Rather than try to convince you that they are (which I’m not sure I have a strong enough argument to do) I would prefer to understand what you mean when you say justice. More specifically what do you believe is the basis for what is just?

      Perhaps I was wrong to say that my preference for a society that protects personal freedom is based solely on the observation that such a society provides wealth. I do also believe that governments should protect personal freedom because we all have an inherent desire (and right?) to make choices for ourselves. Perhaps this relates to your idea of justice.

  9. Greg Forster says:

    Well, “what is justice?” is a famously difficult question to answer. Just to avoid misunderstanding, by “justice” I wasn’t referring to any kind of grand scheme for reordering the cosmos; I just meant people respecting other people’s rights.

    I’m broadly Lockean in my political theory, which means I believe there is a trascendent moral law, preceding all human preferences and actions (and therefore not dependent on them for its legitimacy) which dictates, roughly speaking, that it is wrong to treat human beings as though they were property. Acts like murder and theft are unjust because they implicitly treat other people as though they were your property. For the most part and generally speaking, “injustice” means harming the life, liberty and property of others. (There are exceptions, of course, but there’s no space to get into all that here.) However, it’s worth noting that this principle also requires us to prefer the preservation of human life over, say, the preservation of animals or inert physical objects (when we must choose). If a person and a priceless work of art are trapped in a burning building and you can only save one, you have to save the person. You’re not allowed to compare his worth to the worth of the artwork and decide which is worth more, as though the person and the artwork were the same type of thing.

    So the point I’m trying to make is that forbidding people from harming the life, liberty and property of others, and in general respecting the category distinction between human life and other types of objects, is not something we do because it happens, on balance, to produce more wealth and happiness. It is dictated to us by a moral law that we did not make and are obligated to obey regardless of whether it makes us wealthy and happy.

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