Sowell Points Out What Is, in Fact, Funny about Peace, Rawls and Understanding

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Over on NRO, Thomas Sowell lays out one of the many underlying problems with Rawlsianism: the information problem. The traditional rules of interpersonal justice, which Rawls called “formal fairness” – don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t defraud, fulfill contracts, etc. – are a feasible basis for policy because they only require knowledge of a limited number of discrete acts. Within reasonable limits we can usually get a pretty clear idea of who did what to whom. But Rawls’s desire for a more comprehensively “fair” society presupposes that we have information on the whole state of facts across all reality, and not just in a snapshot but dynamically over time, and not just in the actual course of events but also in all possible anticipated courses of events depending on what policies we enact. This fallacy was also identified by Hayek as “the fatal conceit.”

Required reading for those tempted by the Rawlsian fallacy.

14 Responses to Sowell Points Out What Is, in Fact, Funny about Peace, Rawls and Understanding

  1. matthewladner says:

    Sowell is doubtlessly correct in his critique of the Full Monty Rawls as applied by the left. In my mind, justice must happen at the individual level.

    However, according to Matthew Miller (on page 83 of the 2% Solution) Rawls was concerned with equality of opportunity, not condition. He goes on to say that Rawls wants a society in which “the government tries to insure equal chances of education and culture for persons similarily endowed and motivated, either by subsidizing private schools or establishing a public school system.”

    Miller’s account of Rawls also calls for a “social minimum” aka safety net.

    It doesn’t seem to me that Sowell’s critique would apply to this minimalist Rawls. It also seems worthwhile to me to ask how best to maximize utility within such a system-i.e. if we are going to educate disadvantaged children or provide social minimums, how can we do so in the most advantageous way for both the poor and for society.

  2. Greg Forster says:

    I hate to break this to you, but Miller is making up b.s. out of his head and attributing it to Rawls.

    He can do this with impunity because Rawls has no complaint coming, as he himself made up b.s. out of his head and attributed it to Kant and Aristotle.

  3. Matthewladner says:

    If Miller is making this up, and he may be and I wouldn’t know, he is making up a rather specific claim.

  4. Brian says:

    Sowell is criticizing a straw-man of his own creation, not Rawls. He doesn’t even come close to describing Rawls’ system of fairness. For one, Sowell’s claim that it is all about outcomes and not inputs is simply untrue.
    Second, if under a veil of ignorance one would agree that it is acceptable for fast runners to win a track meet and for slow runners to lose, then track meets would pass the Rawlsian test. I think they do pass the test, and it is a ridiculous stretch for Sowell to suggest that Rawls’ system would come to a different conclusion. Sowell is not making an honest effort to engage in the thought experiment.
    However, if under a veil of ignorance one would agree that it is wrong for a birth-lottery to dictate the quality of your school, then our current system fails the Rawlsian test. As has been documented here before, both Matt and I think it is quite obvious that the current public school system fails the Rawlsian test.
    Lastly, there is little value added to the debate when the Sowells of the world (and you too, Greg) criticize a particular framework for evaluating justice without offering a better solution. To be sure, you can choose to be a social darwinist, in which case you do not need to construct a framework for fairness. Or you can choose to support a society with some system for establishing fairness. I think most everyone falls into the latter category, but I am not hearing any alternative theories for establishing the rules.

  5. matthewladner says:


    You seem to know much more about Rawls than I do, as I have only read Miller’s rendering of Rawls, so let me ask you: do you think Miller’s characterization of Rawls is accurate? Is it the case that he basically calls for the creation of a method of education, and a social minimum?

    If you look at the work of Milton Friedman, he was at his most influential in coming up with ways to better accomplish those goals- specifically vouchers and a negative income tax.

  6. Brian says:

    I really just pretend to know what I am talking about. I definitely don’t know enough detail to answer your specific question. I think in general the veil of ignorance concept is pretty simple, and open to reasonable interpretation. I do know that Rawls believed that the veil would affirm a desire for liberty.

  7. Greg Forster says:

    Having actually read Rawls’s work, it’s been pretty clear to me for a long time now that people have taken a few snippets of his thinking and radically abstracted them from what Rawls originally meant by them, and these few disconnected notions have become “Rawls’s theory” or “what Rawls was really talking about,” etc.

    This has occurred, I think, because the actual content of the actual book A Theory of Justice is so ridiculously poorly reasoned that no one is interested in defending it, not to mention so radically socialist that everyone has realized it’s never going to happen. So people pick and choose little bits and pieces of it, decide for themselves what it “really means,” and defend *that* as “Rawls.”

    So upon further consideration, I’ll take back what I said about Miller. Rather than making it up himself, he’s probably just repeating what he’s always heard about Rawls from the few people he’s talked to who act like they’ve read it.

    The actual book A Theory of Justice is all about government mandated outcomes from beginning to end.

    Even Rawls himself came to realize the theory of A Theory of Justice was untenable. Around 1990 or thereabouts he published a book about how hubristic the first book had been.

  8. Matthewladner says:


    I suspect you are right that Rawls own position evolved over time. I seem to recall reading that Rawls effectively if not explicitly made concessions to Nozick along the way.

    If so, it is possible that neither Sowell nor Miller have engaged in a straw man. Rawls may have started as an equality of outcomes guy, but ended as an equality of opportunity sort.

  9. Greg Forster says:

    If you’re really interested in the historical question of what Rawls actually thought, Matt, step one would be to read what he wrote. 🙂

  10. matthewladner says:

    Indeed, but with thousands of pages of turgid academic prose involved, I am looking for the Cliff Notes!

  11. Brian says:

    I would also add that the veil of ignorance concept can be freely used as a thought experiment, without being completely doomed by what Rawls himself perceived when he put on the veil. Right? I think people can borrow the concept and argue for their view of the implications without being tethered to Rawls’ implications.
    At least this keeps me from having to read everything he wrote.
    (I did read most of the book as an undergrad, but can’t remember everything).

  12. Greg Forster says:

    Ah, but the whole idea of a “veil of ignorance” is heavily dependent on all sorts of presuppositions about exactly what people are supposed to be “ignorant” of when they’re behind the veil, and what questions they’re asking. E.g. What level of risk tolerance do people behind the veil have? Are they only deciding what government policies should be adopted, taking for granted the basic nature of human beings and structure of society as we understand them now? Or are deeper questions open for debate when we’re behind the veil?

    And your assumptions are quite different from Rawls’s!

  13. Brian says:

    Well, I think we’ve arrived at the same point we always arrive at, which is Greg’s assertion that the veil is simply unworkable and too open for alternative interpretations to be useful. So rather than play defense, I would rather play offense and re-ask Greg what framework he would use to determine the scope and size of safety nets (if he wants them at all). My hunch is we can criticize his framework to no end as well, but I am open to hearing it.

  14. Greg Forster says:

    Well, I didn’t say Rawls’s veil is “too open for alternative interpretations to be useful.” I said many people think they’re talking about Rawls’s veil when they’re actually talking about their own.

    And, on a related point, I’m not foolish enough to think that a few lines of text on a blog can provide a practical theory of justice. Neither did Rawls. He wrote a long and complex book to lay out his thinking. That’s what it takes to tackle these complex questions in a meaningful way, at least as a starting point for discussion. Once you’ve read some books, you’re in a position to discuss things meaningfully, even in a few lines of text on blog. But a few lines of text on a blog cannot serve as a starting point.

    That’s why I keep trying to bring the conversation about “Rawls” back to what Rawls actually wrote. If we’re not talking about that, we don’t really have much substance to discuss.

    So, if you really want to know what I think, check out this and this. 🙂

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