Rawls 4: Economics and a Fair Society

Rawls begins his discussion of justice and the political economy with a statement that almost everyone would agree to: “A doctrine of political economy must include an interpretation of the public good, which is based upon a conception of justice.” [1] The social system of a society profoundly affects the character of its citizens. Human wants and aspirations, our vision of our potential futures and the limitations on our aspirations. They are on, are all impacted profoundly by the social institutions, under which we live. [2]

My wife and I are enthusiastic followers of British television. A constant theme of shows that deal with the early 20th century is revealing the way in which the working class in Great Britain began to see a different future as a result of social changes during and after the First World War. Downton Abbey, for example, follows the changes in a prominent family and their servants thought the changes World War I brought. [3] Such shows always include older members of the family and older servants who have grown up within the limitations of a traditional society who are challenged to accept the aspirations of a younger generation. This is just an illustration of the truism that socio-economic systems carry with them a vision of society, a set of social institutions, an economic reality, all of which impact those who live in any society.

The Original Position and Political Economy

Rawls’s presentation begins with a presumption that human beings choose and change a social system with limited reference to the actual route of the historical development of a society and the actual condition, including ideas and prejudices with which all investigation begins. He is dismissive of those who “acquiesce to the status quo” without thinking through the moral conceptions implicit in the status quo or leaving things as they have developed under historical contingencies. [4] In his view, there is no safe starting point other than to create an ideal conception of society unprejudiced and uninformed (I think) by reality as it presents itself in concrete historical circumstances. This is the notion behind the “original position.” Unfortunately, throughout human history, human beings have been born into a socio-economic reality to which they adapted and, in many cases, changed. Perhaps the safest starting point is society as it has evolved and adapted over time. The kind of “armchair philosophizing in which Rawls engages makes him a child of Descartes, Kant, and the high Enlightenment philosophers but far from the pragmatism that characterizes American philosophy at its best.

While a kind of disembodied “Original Position” notion may be inviting to Americans, perhaps especially to well-educated Americans, it is profitable to examine the results where America recently put similar ideas into practice: In the misguided attempts to build an ideal, modern, secular democracy in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. Most intelligent observers believe America failed to build functional democracies in these nations precisely due to its disregard for the historical, contingent but authentic structures of these societies, in particular, due to a failure to consider the tribal nature of the communities involved. I would suggest that the failure of Communism results partially from its propensity to envision an ideal state removed from the history and culture it was busy destroying. The result was, in all cases, tyranny and even greater social and economic unfairness than existed before their misguided efforts.

The Priority of Fundamental Rights

In a free society, there will, of course, be disagreement on what justice as fairness might mean. For there to be a practical application of Rawls’s ideas, there must be some way of arbitrating these differences, including in socio-economic matters. Rawls creates three basic principles to guide political actors in instituting a liberal political conception of justice:

  1. All citizens share fundamental individual human rights and liberties, such as rights of free expression, freedom of conscience, and free choice of occupation;
  2. Fundamental human rights and liberties take priority over demands to further the general good (e.g., to increase national wealth) or perfectionist values (e.g., to promote a particular view of human flourishing);
  3. All citizens should have access to sufficient means to effectively use their freedoms (i.e., education, basic healthcare, some income, etc.).

It is a corollary of these basic principles that:

All social values—liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the social bases of self-respect—are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any, or all, of these values is to everyone’s disadvantage. [5]

A well-formed society, according to Rawls, creates structures (institutions) that provide for all citizens: a civilized distribution of income and wealth; fair opportunities for all citizens, especially in education and training; government as the employer of last resort; basic health care for all citizens; and public financing of elections. [6] As to economic matters, establishing economic justice requires that efficiency be sacrificed when and if leaders believe that inefficiency will create a fairer society. [7]

The Power of Government to Allocate Wealth and Other Social Goods

The founders of American democracy worked on the principle that citizens should in general, be able to keep what they earned and produced in terms of income and wealth (the principle of private property). Rawls works from the underlying principle that the state should control the allocation of income and wealth, as well as other social goods, to achieve equality. In a way, his thinking parallels the way in which American society developed from Roosevelt’s New Deal to Johnson’s Great Society.

Under Rawlsian theory, all social values—liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the social bases of self-respect—are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any or all, of these values is to everyone’s disadvantage. Although Rawls does create theoretical limits on governmental power, in my view, there is no practical limit on the power of government to allocate any social good of any kind except for the entirely subjective judgment concerning what inequality is to “everyone’s advantage.” In Communist states, this was regularly interpreted to mean that it was to everyone’s advantage for party members and their families to have unequal shares. In Communist Russia and similar states, almost all social values were inequitably allocated to governmental and party elites. When the states disintegrated, they transferred resources to the families of communist functionaries.

It was precisely because the founders of American democracy felt that government could not equitably make such decisions that they worked from a different starting point. One might speculate that their starting point would have been the precise opposite of Rawls’s:

All social values—liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the social bases of self-respect—are to be distributed as earned by citizens by their private efforts unless such an unequal distribution of any, or all, of these values, is to everyone’s disadvantage.

Just to be clear, it is my personal opinion that the amount of national wealth that the wealthiest members of Western society have accumulated is now to everyone’s disadvantage, politically, socially, and economically. Attention must be paid to creating more worker and consumer ownership of the means of production. The government should refrain from such activities as “bailouts” that primarily benefit the rich. This could be accomplished in many ways, including encouraging employee ownership plans, worker and consumer cooperatives, and similar programs. The public should be the beneficiary when public resources are used to bail out private businesses. However, it would also be my belief that changes should be slow, incremental and carefully monitored to be sure that those who hold the same views I hold are not mistaken. This is the pragmatic approach in action.

If American democracy moved in the way suggested, it would be a practical implementation of the notion that Rawls wants to defend: that societies should be structured so that a just allocation of resources can be achieved. In my view, however, “just” at any given time can only be achieved by policymakers taking incremental steps to create social harmony and overcome sources of disharmony without interfering with private property or other private rights to the maximum extent possible. This is not a matter of “ideal structures” but of practical wisdom.

An incrementalistic Alternative

An implication of the approach suggested above for political decision-making is that policymakers are best served by making small adjustments to the current political reality (as opposed to some ideal “Initial Position”) as they test the results of policy choices. [8] Minor adjustments, if successful, will inevitably result in further adjustments. If they are unsuccessful, the abductive cycle of experimentation on alternative hypotheses can continue until a sound policy preference can be established. [9]

This kind of approach involves what is sometimes referred to as “reasoning to the best solution in unclear decision-making situations.” In political decision-making, there is always an element of conflict, unclarity, and uncertainty about policy decisions and their implications. Decisions such as, “Should we raise taxes?” or “Should there be a flatter tax system or a more graduated system?” provoke arguments on each side of the question, and decision-makers must make and initiate policy decisions under conditions of result uncertainty. While various proponents may argue that their solution is infallibly correct, those who make decisions inevitably make decisions in a state of uncertainty. The statements of certainty so common among political figures is often little more than an attempt to avoid the consequences of uncertainty among their followers and colleagues. [10]


It was not, of course, Rawls’s intention to create a basis for Western democratic emulation of communist socio-economic ideas or structures. He was not intentionally creating a justification for a totalitarian society. Rawls tried to develop a rationale for a more workable democratic and free society. His ideas fail not in his intentions but in his unrealistic starting point and his misguided confidence in human reason and government to create his ideal community. The founders of American social and political institutions drew upon a long and well-learned suspicion of human self-centeredness and governmental abuse of private citizens and their personal rights.

On the other hand, Rawls has confidence that applying his principles of justice by rational persons will result in a fairer allocation of social goods than the conscious and unconscious decisions of millions of persons seeking their own and, in many cases, the public interest. Currently, the majority thought-leaders of our society agree with Rawls’s approach. Changing this mindset, if it is, in fact, correct to change it, will require a great deal of thought, changes in education, and a social consensus closer to that of the founders of American democracy.

Copyright 2023, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice rev. Ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971-1999), 229.

[2] Id.

[3] Engler, M. (2019). Downton Abbey. Focus Features.

[4] Id.

[5] Id, at 55.

[6] This is a reworking of https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rawls/ (downloaded June 4, 2023).

[7] Rawls, at 230.

[8] More than one author has discussed the implications of abductive thinking for government, bureaucracy, and political calculation. See, for example, Matt Loasch, “Conceptualizing Governance Decision Making: A Theoretical Model of Mental Processes Derived through Abduction” Old Dominion University Digital Commons (Summer 2019), Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), dissertation, School of Public Service, Old Dominion University, DOI:10.25777/xvpq-e948 https://digitalcommons.odu.edu/publicservice_etds/41 (downloaded, March 28, 2022) and Eleonora Venneri, “Social Planning and Evaluation: The Abductive Logic” International Journal of Applied Sociology, 4(5):115-119 DOI: 10.5923/j.ijas.20140405.01 (2014).

[9] Contemporary late-modern society is often characterized by a preference for “revolutionary change.” The model of this kind of a revolutionary ideology of change is the French revolution, where the entire structure of French society was destroyed and then rebuild on Republican principles. As previously observed, the destruction of the existing order resulted in huge human suffering and ultimately the dictatorship of Napoleon and further suffering. See Karl Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994

[10] This section is from an unpublished paper, G. Christopher Scruggs, “A “Sophia-Agapic” Approach to Political Philosophy:  A Post-Ideological Proposal” (unpublished manuscript).