Rereading Rawls

Posted: 4 April 2012 in Uncategorized
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It’s been awhile since I read John Rawls’s theory of justice. But I’ve longed considered it compatible with one or another form of welfare-state capitalism, and therefore with capitalist exploitation as defined by Marx.

But Daniel Little has proposed a different reading, based on a radical interpretation advanced by Will Wilkinson, according to which Rawls’s theory of justice represents a critique of capitalist exploitation.*

Wilkinson’s idea is that Rawls’s first principle of justice is more radical than, and needs to be satisfied before moving to, the difference principle.

If we focus primarily on Rawls’ difference principle, as opposed to what he does and does not include in his list of basic rights, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that Rawlsian justice demands relatively laissez-faire capitalism together with a very generous welfare state. Free markets make a country rich and robust social insurance ensures that even the worst-off enjoy the benefits of all that wealth. As it turns out, the worst-off are best off in countries, such as Denmark, that have settled on precisely this formula, which Rawls called “welfare-state capitalism.” But Rawls rejected welfare-state capitalism, because he rejected capitalism generally. Before we even get to distributional questions, we’ve got to ensure that the full worth of Rawls’ privileged political and civil liberties are equally guaranteed to all, and he thought no form of capitalism, which by its nature allows for large inequalities in ownership of the means of production, could do that. . .

Ironically, by focusing on the least significant and probably least contentious portion of Rawls’ theory of justice, Mazie ends up plumping for a politics significantly to the right of Rawls, and probably to the right many of those at the vanguard of the Occupy Wall Street movement. That said, Rawls really does have to be watered down in this way to make him relevant to American politics, which I think is one of the main reasons generations of students have been taught that the difference principle is somehow at the heart of Rawls’ account of justice when it very clearly is not.

Little then takes this idea to argue Rawls does not accept the fundamental rights that give rise to capitalism as basic rights of liberty. His conclusion is that,

The two principles of justice are not apriori committed to the justice of the basic institutions of capitalism; and therefore Rawls’s system is not forced to judge that exploitation is just. Or more affirmatively: exploitation is unjust.

For my own part, I’m not entirely convinced by this move, that capitalist exploitation must necessarily be considered unjust within Rawls’s theory of justice. But I don’t want to underestimate the opening created by Little’s reading of Rawls: that Rawlsian justice neither presumes capitalism (as is often taken for granted by liberal thinkers) nor does it preclude the elimination of capitalist exploitation (which indeed would be a welcome contribution to the Occupy movement)

Rawls just may merit a rereading.

* I do have one quibble with Little’s account of Marx’s theory of exploitation. It is not the case that “The capitalist purchases the worker’s labor time for a wage that is the equivalent of a certain number of labor hours X,” while “The length of the working day is greater than X.” Marx’s whole point is that when capitalists pay workers the value of their labor power, they get to consume the commodity labor power for a certain number of hours X. During the course of performing labor during those X hours, workers create value greater than the value of their labor power. During one portion of those hours, workers perform necessary labor, and thus are working for themselves; during the other portion, they are performing surplus labor, and thus are working for the capitalists. If, then, they work additional hours (say, X+y), absolute surplus-value is appropriated from them. If, however, the total number of hours remains X but the portion spent performing necessary labor decreases (e.g, because the value of the elements of the wage bundle falls or the intensity of labor rises), then the capitalist are able to appropriate relative surplus-value.

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