In a recent article on “The Income Gap,” economist Mark Thoma asks whether the distribution of income is fair. To answer this question, he adopts (at least for the sake of argument) the neoclassical view of income distribution. Assuming a perfectly competitive market economy, “each person in society receives an income equal to their contribution to national output.” Thoma admits that judgments of fairness are best left to society as a whole rather than economists, but says that “if we adopt the simple notion that every person has a right to a share of output equivalent to their contribution to it… then a competitive economic system does produce a justifiable outcome, at least in theory.” Thoma’s criticism of this view is that it relies on “a whole host of assumptions,” and that when these idealized conditions (such as perfect competition) don’t hold, “there is nothing that says the resulting outcome necessarily accords with the ‘every person gets what they deserve’ properties of perfect competition.” I assume Thoma is right about that, but I think he’s giving far too much credit to the idea that distribution according to contribution is a plausible principle of justice.
I’ve written a longish review of Jerry Gaus’s The Order of Public Reason (CUP, 2010). The review is called “The Classical Tilt of Justificatory Liberalism,” because I raise some doubts about whether justificatory liberalism does incline in favour of classical liberalism, as against social justice liberalism. However, the main purpose of the essay is just to lay out Gaus’s overall argument about how the authority we claim over each other’s conduct in ordinary social morality can be justified. The answer, perhaps not surprisingly given the title of the book, is “only if this morality is publicly justifiable,” (where “publicly justifiable” has its technical sense of “being acceptable to each and everyone one of a range of reasonable but conflicting points of view,” rather than the ordinary meaning of “being justifiable in public, without need for (noble) lies”). The book also argues that, correctly understood, our everyday moral practices (e.g. feeling and expressing resentment, indignation, forgiveness, and so on) presuppose a recognition of others as free and equal persons. And the book reconciles the explanatory / evolutionary / Humean perspective on morality with the justificatory / Kantian perspective on morality. All that for the low price of CDN $60.78 (low on a per page basis, that is; it’s 549 pages long, not counting appendices etc.). This is a very ambitious book because it aims to synthesize a wide range of material from diverse fields in the service of a general argument that unfolds over the course of the whole book (comparable to A Theory of Justice, in that respect). My main aim was to state that overall argument in a radically condensed form. And of course to question the classical tilt.
One of the things I’ve done this year is to rework the main portions of my paper “Public Justification and the Limits of State Action“, as a chapter for my book manuscript about public reason and political community. This chapter addresses a common objection to Rawls’s “political liberalism,” which is that if reasonable disagreement about the nature of the good life requires the state not promote or discourage any of these rival conceptions, but there is room for reasonable disagreement about justice as well as about the good life, then the state may not implement controversial conceptions of social justice, or do much of anything.
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In the second volume of his Law, Legislation and Liberty, which is entitled The Mirage of Social Justice, Hayek makes the following claim:
Though it might seem reasonable so to frame laws that they will tend more strongly to improve the opportunities of those whose chances are relatively small, this can rarely be achieved by generic rules. There are, no doubt, instances where the past development of law has introduced a bias in favour or to the disadvantage of particular groups; and such provisions ought clearly to be corrected. But on the whole it would seem that the fact which, contrary to a widely held belief, has contributed most during the last two hundred years to increase not only the absolute but also the relative position of those in the lowest income groups has been the general growth of wealth which has tended to raise the income of the lowest groups more than the relatively higher ones. (p.131, emphasis added)
In the footnote to this paragraph, Hayek adds:
The chance of all will be increased most if we act on principles which will result in raising the general level of incomes without paying attention to the consequent shifts of particular individuals or groups from one position on the scale to another… It is not easy to illustrate this by the available statistics of the changes of income distribution during periods of rapid economic progress. But in the one country for which fairly adequate information of this kind is available, the USA, it would seem that a person who in 1940 belonged to the group whose individual incomes were greater than those of 50 per cent of the population but smaller than those of 40 per cent of the population, even if he had by 1960 descended to the 30-40 per cent group, would still have enjoyed a larger absolute income than he did in 1940. (p.188, emphasis added).
I think Hayek is comparing the mid-point (average income) of the 50-60 decile with the mid-point of the 30-40 decile. I couldn’t find data for 1940 on deciles, but the data on quintiles for the U.S. are readily available back to 1947. The picture they present is very interesting.
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Last year I taught this course as POLS 456, even though the description of that course is “politics of identity”. This year I will be teaching it as POLS 451.
Course Description: “This course examines some of the main theoretical defences of free markets, private property, and the limited state, covering thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Ayn Rand, Robert Nozick, and Gerald Gaus (not all of whom are libertarians in the strict sense). The course also covers the recent development of “left-libertarianism,” which tries to reconcile the libertarian principle of self-ownership with an egalitarian approach to the division of the world’s resources.”
Not yet back in town, but in the meantime, some work to report:
“The ‘Mirage’ of Social Justice: Hayek Against (and For) Rawls” Slightly revised text of a lecture I gave at Balliol College, May 10, 2011. Thanks to last year’s POLS 456 class for stimulating these thoughts about why Hayek was really a Rawlsian (or would have been, if he’d consistently applied his basic normative ideas). I will be reworking this paper for publication as part of a symposium on Hayek, so comments are welcome.
“Justice as Fairness and Reciprocity.” A paper about the relationship between justice and reciprocity, starting from the disability critique of Rawls’s contractualism, moving on to global justice. Also based on a lecture I gave this year at Balliol. The paper will be published in the journal Analyze & Kritik.
Will Wilkinson has an interesting post up arguing that Rawls is inconsistent in the idealizing assumptions he makes in A Theory of Justice. The gist of it is that Rawls initially says (in §2) that he is assuming “strict compliance” (i.e. everyone is assumed to have an effective sense of justice), leaving problems of “partial compliance” for later (e.g. just war, rebellion, civil disobedience), but then (in §42) admits that we need the coercive power of the state to ensure that people don’t free ride, which seems inconsistent.
I don’t think Rawls is retracting his strict compliance assumption, in Section 42. It’s just that he assumes that the sense of justice involves a reciprocity condition. Read the rest of this entry »
I will be on sabbatical during the 2010-11 academic year, and so not teaching. Following in Prof. Farelly’s footsteps, I will be a visitor at the Center for the Study of Social Justice, at the University of Oxford.
Two recent conference papers I’ve written are available online. The first was for the MPSA annual meeting in Chicago, is called “Epistemic Proceduralism and the Scope of Democratic Authority,” and is about the role of public justification in David Estlund’s theory of democracy. The argument is quite a bit different than in my Representation article – I’m less worried about the objection that the principle of public justifiability might not itself be publicly justifiable, and more worried about the scope of political authority the principle will permit. The paper also begins with what I think is a better explanation of what I take to be Estlund’s basic idea, and why it is important.
The second is called “Justice and Reciprocity,” and is for the CPSA meeting going on this week in Montreal.