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Tyler Cowen Rejects John Rawls

Tyler writes:

Marginal Revolution: John Rawls, anti-capitalist: John Rawls, anti-capitalist: This is from his correspondence:

The large open market including all of Europe is aim of the large banks and the capitalist business class whose main goal is simply larger profit. The idea of economic growth, with no specific end in sight, fits this class perfectly. If they speak about distribution, it is most always in terms of trickle down. The long-term result of this — which we already have in the United States — is a civil society awash in a meaningless consumerism of some kind. I can’t believe that is what you want.

So you see that I am not happy about globalization as the banks and business class are pushing it. I accept Mill’s idea of the stationary state as described by him in Bk. IV, Ch. 6 of his Principles of Political Economy (1848). (I am adding a footnote in §15 to say this, in case the reader hadn’t noticed it). I am under no illusion that its time will ever come - certainly not soon - but it is possible, and hence it has a place in what I call the idea of realistic utopia.

For more see CrookedTimber. The real question is how much this should cause us to downgrade his moral philosophy. I say "a lot." I used to think there was some deep argument of consilience behind "maximin," [Rawls's claim that deviations from material equality were unjustified unless they redounded to the benefit of the poor,] but now I am ready to classify it as a simple mistake, akin to a person who doesn't understand what drove the flow of traffic across the Berlin Wall in one direction and not the other.

I admit I always had problems with "maximin." In the context of social-contract theory, it seemed to make no sense at all: maximin simply doesn't follow from the thought experiment of choosing rules and institutions for an enterprise without knowing what your place in that enterprise is going to be. An alternative justification of "maximin" is that it creates a society in which the poor have no justified grip: that things are arranged to make them as well off as possible. But this falls to the objections that (a) different people and different kinds of people are the poor in different societies, and (b) by what right do this society's poor claim dictatorial power over rules and institutions?

But Tyler's picking-up of Chris Bertram's noting of Philippe Van Parijs's letters to and from Rawls certainly does get Rawls into trouble at a much deeper, elementary level.