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July 31, 2007

Rawls Didn't Start The Fire

Linda Hirshman, continuing her bizarre jihad against John Rawls, writes:

In the thirty five years between the publication of the Theory of Justice in 1971 and the election of 2006, the conservative Republican Party held the Presidency for twenty-three years, controlled the Senate for seventeen years, effectively controlled both houses of Congress in the last twelve and outperformed the Democrats in state government at an increasing rate until surpassing them in states controlled also in the last twelve. But more importantly, until the election of 2006 finally cost the Republicans the House and their superiority among the states, the trend was steadily in their direction at all levels of government. The Iraq war interrupted that trend, but liberals cannot always hope for colossal, long term, clearly visible foreign policy disasters to win elections.

Also occurring within this thirty year period: Stagflation, the Iranian hostage crisis, Welcome Back Kotter, Watergate, Nixon goes to China, the Cold War, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Perestroika, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Transformers, deregulation, the acceleration of inequality, the crack epidemic, the first Gulf War, the Nintendo Entertainment System, the second Gulf War, 9/11, Bosnia, Iran-Contra, the internet, the Christian Coalition, Lazy Sunday, the realignment of the Dixiecrat South, the Shining Trailer, etc, etc, etc.

But Linda traces the Democratic struggles during this period to a philosophy book? Really?

July 31, 2007 | Permalink

Comments

Also, rock and role and cola wars. I can't take it anymore.

... Someone had to go there.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Jul 31, 2007 2:07:47 PM

In fact, you could just title the post "Rawls didn't start the fire".

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Jul 31, 2007 2:08:24 PM

I blame hair metal.

Posted by: Tom Hilton | Jul 31, 2007 2:38:11 PM

Post hoc ergo propter hoc

Posted by: rea | Jul 31, 2007 2:54:49 PM

Awesome.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Jul 31, 2007 3:01:57 PM

Also during that period of Democratic decline, "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine" topped the charts (1976). By one Lou Rawls. Coincidence? You be the judge.

But seriously: does she really believe that, if John Rawls had never lived and A Theory Of Justice had never been written, the fortunes of progressivism/liberalism would have been markedly different since then?

Posted by: kth | Jul 31, 2007 3:13:14 PM

I wish philosophy was that effective in generating short term social change -- it'd make my job a lot more exciting...

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Jul 31, 2007 3:29:49 PM

I always thought of Rawls as following, not leading -- since Plato it's been the role of political philosophy to explain why the polities we do see are the only polities we could possibly see. Anything else is the provice of utopian fiction.

I always thought of Rawls' ToJ as a pretty good stab at answering the following question: "After somewhat limited success in altering the distribution -- largely on pragmatic grounds -- of what he would call 'primary goods in the 30's, 40's, 50's, and 60's, what philosophy can be created that is compelling, internally consistent, and explains what had already happened?

Posted by: Davis X. Machina | Jul 31, 2007 3:55:45 PM


Since Plato it's been the role of political philosophy to explain why the polities we do see are the only polities we could possibly see. Anything else is the provice of utopian fiction.
Plato definitely includes stuff you could call 'utopian fiction', although I guess you might argue it fits into your explaining the polities we do see.

I haven't read tons of political philosophy but I don't believe it all devoted to expounding on determinism. In fact my sense is that they don't often get into real world questions of how do build society X. You do see lots of people reading philosophy and then trying to apply it to the real world. (Communists, Thomas Jefferson, french revolution)

Also broader political science defintitely doesn't suggest alternative forms of organization are impossible or that the systems we have would be recreated if we started over.

Posted by: ChrisB | Jul 31, 2007 4:20:33 PM

Heaven forbid we actually blame the Democrats for losing their edge by letting the GOP punk them.

Posted by: akaison | Jul 31, 2007 4:30:55 PM

end Italics

Well, I won't speak to the direct causal connection, if that is what fascinates you about the article. Most of the criticisms of Hirschman don't seem to be spending much time on Rawls.

It seems to me that the "fairness as justice" thing can be interpreted or misinterpreted as prioritizing some kind of Pareto Optimum in which the lot of the worst off, the starving kid or the one without health care, can only be helped as long as absolutely no damage or "injustice" is done to the Waltons.

That is how a lot of American politics looks to me today, and I think it can be connected, if not causally then by ex post justifications, to ToJ. Rule-making procedures that would result in UHC and less-rich Waltons are no considered "fair." As a matter of fact, the results don't seem to matter.

It is the damn process liberals, who are closer to Burke than to Proudhon or Goldman.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jul 31, 2007 4:39:05 PM

Hirschman doesn't claim that what's quoted above is proof of her position. She doesn't really say what she draws from it, but presumably she presents it as at least some evidence for or an illustration of the problem she sees, a problem that she believes Rawls has indirectly perpetuated. Her thesis is that we need a philosophical grounding for liberalism, without which we founder, and that Rawls' influence has interfered with this:

It's not that Rawls caused the philosophical failure of the liberal political party, it's that his dominant way of thinking drowned out most other potential liberal philosophies and did not nourish effective political liberalism (too thin).

She argues, as Rawls seems to have believed (she quotes him on this), that philosophy can and does affect gross political change and gives several examples. I'm not sure she's right about any of this, but it's not as stupid as it might appear.

I always thought of Rawls' ToJ as a pretty good stab at answering the following question: "After somewhat limited success in altering the distribution -- largely on pragmatic grounds -- of what he would call 'primary goods in the 30's, 40's, 50's, and 60's, what philosophy can be created that is compelling, internally consistent, and explains what had already happened?

I don't see anything like that at all. It's an argument to justify a preexising idea of justice, not history.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jul 31, 2007 4:46:26 PM

"-- since Plato it's been the role of political philosophy to explain why the polities we do see are the only polities we could possibly see. Anything else is the provice of utopian fiction."

The converse is actually more true than this. Plato actually wrote a utopia, the Republic, which has never come to pass (and certainly didn't, and probably couldn't, exist at the time Plato wrote). There were only one or two social contract states before the Enlightenment (England and Holland). In most of continental Europe, the start of the Enlightenment came 70 or more years before social contract states started emerging in reality.

Change, even big change, can certainly be ascribed to a philosophy book (um, Marxism? modern economics and utilitarianism?). But this particular claim is so strange it's approaching Ayn Rand's depictions of Kantian philosophy.

Posted by: burritoboy | Jul 31, 2007 4:46:53 PM

Hirshman was my freshman year political philosophy professor at Brandeis. She was extraordinarily anti-Rawls in the class and repeated the view of his philosophy simply reaffirming Cambridge, MA quite often. These arguments are par for the course.

Posted by: Greg S | Jul 31, 2007 5:01:22 PM

I haven't ever really posted before, but I couldn't let this pass:

"It seems to me that the "fairness as justice" thing can be interpreted or misinterpreted as prioritizing some kind of Pareto Optimum in which the lot of the worst off, the starving kid or the one without health care, can only be helped as long as absolutely no damage or "injustice" is done to the Waltons."

To characterize Rawls' position this way is a little more than an "misinterpretation," since Rawls is arguing for the opposite conclusion. In essence, Rawls sets the baseline at complete equality, understood as near-subsistence poverty, since the market would almost certainly collapse under such redistribution. Any gains above this equality, like those of the mega-rich Waltons, can only be justified by showing that they make that poor kid better off. In other words, it isn't that you can only improve the poor kid if you don't take from the Waltons, but that the Waltons can only gain above a bare minimum if, at the same time, they maximize the position of that kid.

That's all!

Posted by: Mark | Jul 31, 2007 5:18:01 PM

"In essence, Rawls sets the baseline at complete equality, understood as near-subsistence poverty"

"but that the Waltons can only gain above a bare minimum if, at the same time, they maximize the position of that kid."

I am much relieved. This is really useful stuff.

I think Hirschman's point is made.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jul 31, 2007 5:38:36 PM

Actually I blame it all on the bourgeois illusions reified by Pee Wee's Funhouse

Posted by: WB Reeves | Jul 31, 2007 6:07:17 PM

Seriously, how many people have read and understood this fucking book? I majored in Politics at Brandeis and although I've often alluded to Rawls it's not like I actually ever read the guy. The notion that he is in any way to blame for liberalism's decline is fanciful at best. As someone noted above, you could just as plausibly blame Lou Rawls. Although he had a better set of pipes than John.

Posted by: Klein's Tiny Left Nut | Jul 31, 2007 6:07:38 PM

Let's Not Tell hilzoy

Now leaving aside what Rawls may have actually said, or meant by what he said (if any two people can agree on that), here is what one prominent economist who has actually had a little tip of a finger on the policy machine thinks Rawls said.

"This is, of course, wrong. Rawls does not think that the primary goal of public policy should be to redistribute resources to help those at the very bottom. Rawls thinks that the first goal of public policy is to maximize liberty for all. He thinks that the second goal of public policy is to make everybody better off. Redistribution plays third fiddle in Rawls's orchestra: it is a constraint on social wealth maximization--things that make people better off must be shared: choose that set of social and economic arrangements that makes everybody better off, but don't choose a set of social and economic arrangement that makes some people better off at the price of making the worst-off even worse off." ...Brad DeLong

So here are the steps we must take before we tax the Waltons, in order (if I understand DeLong):

1) Does this tax maximise liberty for all?
2) Will this tax actually make everybody better off?
3) The starving kid is the third priority.

By the time we have run the philosophy on point one, and the economic modeling on point two, the kid has starved to death.

Will Wilkerson of Cato has done an excellent job of reconciling Rawls and Hayek, do your own googling. But the fact that Libertarians do not have to twist hard to see the classical liberal/Burkean conservative in Rawls Theory, is as typified by BDL, the fault of Rawls, no matter what particular policy positions Rawls may have later given as examples and explanations.

My particular explanation for the complaint of Hirschman and others about Rawls is that rational process liberalism is at base and in theory incompatible with lasting social justice, and Rawls himself was consumed by the contradictions.

Richard Rorty had an easier time.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jul 31, 2007 7:04:30 PM

The dispute on Hirschman's specific assertion seems to me a cheap shot and strawman-bashing. Even if she is flat wrong, there is still an interesting argument.

I know just a little Rawls, and a little more Kant, but it is not at all difficult to apply a "Rawlsian lens" to the globalization arguments of the last 20-30 years. Sometimes the appeals to Rawls have been explicit, sometimes implicit.

But even if Krugman knew nothing of Rawls, the arguments might seem familar, because Rawls has not so great a distance from Locke/Hume/Smith/Kant/Mill/etc, the solid neo-classical liberal tradition.

Like, maybe a more interesting question is the relation of the "Difference Principle" to the "Law of Comparative Advantage" in justifications and practice? There has been a lot of economist-bashing, here & elsewhere, with little real attempt at moving the bashing beyond empiricism to radical theory.

Because both sides, orthodox and heterodox, still largely accept the justificatory Enlightenment Liberal paradigm, without even completely realizing it.

But we are more interested in discrediting and mocking the over-estimation of a book that simply illuminated a discourse.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jul 31, 2007 7:40:34 PM

Post hoc, ergo propter hoc.

Posted by: Anthony Damiani | Jul 31, 2007 7:41:55 PM

Bob, your version of DeLong's version of Rawls is misleading, and DeLong's could be better put too. Everyone, including the poor kid, is protected by the first principle of justice--no third fiddle there. When it comes to distribution, the poor kid isn't the first priority, and neither is any other person or group other than the whole. But the poorest kid, at least, unlike anyone else, is specifically protected. So redistribution to the poorest may play third fiddle in one way, but it plays a part given a special place not allowed to any other group.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jul 31, 2007 10:02:20 PM

Well, sanpete, i would claim that the "losers" from globalisation fit exactly into that schema, with almost exactly that rationalisation given at 7:04

1st priority free trade
2nd priority general benefit
3rd priority compensation to those not benefited
...
1st priority free markets
2nd priority gdp growth
3rd priority social welfare & poverty programs
...
I can't come up with an easy formulation for distributed rights, but the pattern is clear. It is a very old pattern, you can find it in Keynes and the classical economists, but it is not a scientific truth.
It may be out of some kind of Benthamite utilitarianism.
Most here might agree with these moral scales.

Hirshman calls it "thin gruel". I call it "classical liberalism" and think it very easily misappropriated by the right for their individualistic and laissez faire purposes. After all, freedom is the highest priority.

It is just too hard to determine the line where an individual's freedom can be sacrificed so as to ensure that the worst off is not harmed, as long as society in general is better off.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jul 31, 2007 11:51:12 PM

I don't mean to be unnecessarily contentious, but I just finished ToJ, and I'm pretty excited about having a chance to see if I understood it.

First, the "free trade/free markets" thing is a bit misleading, since the liberties that Rawls gives lexical priority are specifically limited to exclude economic liberties; those are governed by the difference principle. The first-order liberties are things like freedom of conscience, equal protection under the law, and the like. Although I'm sure plenty of people have justified the kind of globalization policies you're talking about on Rawlsian grounds, they aren't to be found in Rawls' own theory.

Second, and I think this is the more important issue, Rawls never privileges overall economic health as compared to the position of the worst-off group, with some exceptions made for extreme circumstances. Once equal liberties (of the type described above) are assured, Rawls claims that basic institutions are to be set up so as to maximize the position of the worst-off group, not the overall economy or level of wealth. The difference principle is a maximin principle, not a principle of utility (which would pretty accurately describe the principle of overall maximization).

This is seen clearest in Rawls' discussion of Pareto Optimality. There are, of course, an infinite number of Pareto-optimal arrangements (since any arrangement is optimal if nobody's position can be increased without taking something from somebody else; if one person had all the wealth in the world, that distribution would be optimal as well); Rawls' principles are designed to choose between different optimal distributions. Specifically, Rawls is claiming that the only just optimal distribution is that which maximizes the welfare of the worst-off group. This, combined with the exclusion of economic liberties from the first principle, means that we can't privilege free markets or free trade over the welfare of the worst-off groups, except in so much as the operation of free markets or free trade is necessary to make the worst off group better of than they would be if those markets or trade policies were restructured.

Posted by: Mark | Aug 1, 2007 12:13:35 AM

Bob, I'm not sure if you're still talking about Rawls specifically. I don't think many people favor free trade or markets over general benefit. Many think free trade and makets are the best means to general benefit, which reverses the order. In practice, there's not much question that the poor come in last, but that isn't what Rawls argues for. Nor Mill.

Posted by: Sanpete | Aug 1, 2007 1:23:46 AM

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