Libertarianism and Modern Philosophers, Lecture 3 with David Gordon - Mises Academy
Libertarianism and the
Philosophers Lecture 3
John Rawls: Equality versus the
System of Natural Liberty
The Influence of Rawls
●Rawls is the most influential
contemporary political philosopher. His
best known book is A Theory of Justice
(1971). Also important is Political
●Justice is the primary virtue of social
institutions. But how do we decide what
●We don’t start out empty handed. We have
judgments, or intuitions, about particular
cases. E.g., a theory of justice that allowed
slavery would be wrong.
●Intuitions can be challenged. When we arrive
at a theory of justice , we can test it against
intuitions. If it doesn’t fit, we can modify either
or both. This is like the way science
proceeds, according to Nelson Goodman.
Rawls and Intuitionism
●One theory of morality is that we directly
grasp values or moral truths and that there is
no systematic account connecting these
truths. This theory is called intuitionism. W.D.
Ross and H.A. Prichard were leading
adherents of this school.
●Rawls is not an intuitionist. He believes that it
is possible to come up with a general theory
Intuitions and Equality
●This discussion of moral intuitions is
important for us because one such intuition
lies at the basis of Rawls’ rejection of
●People in a capitalist economy generally are
generally very unequal in income and wealth.
Rawls thinks that, other things held constant,
this is a morally bad state of affairs. He thinks
that equality has an intuitive moral appeal.
Libertarians will be unlikely to agree.
Why Not Utilitarianism?
●The emphasis on judging a theory by our
intuitions enables Rawls to reject the most
popular theory at the time he wrote TJ,
●Utilitarianism, as Rawls takes it, says we
should maximize the good. There are
different views about the nature of the good---
pleasure, preferences, preferences under
certain constraints, etc.
What’s Wrong With
●Utilitarianism doesn’t take seriously the
separation between people. It allows
sacrifices of some on behalf of others.
The case of the sheriff who hangs an
innocent man to avert a riot is a famous
●Here, Rawls tests a theory by intuition
and rejects it.
●Rawls’ objection doesn’t apply to the
utilitarianism supported by Mises. He says
that people benefit from social cooperation
through the free market, but he doesn’t call
for maximizing or for sacrificing some to help
●Rawls could accept this but say that it leaves
some questions unanswered. What is the
initial distribution of wealth? Are transfers
The Problem of Disagreement
●There is a big problem in constructing a
theory of justice. People in a society like
the US disagree on the nature of the
good. They have different conceptions
of the good.
●It is crucial that Rawls thinks his theory
applies only to societies like the US.
These societies are democracies where
The Fact of Reasonable
●One obvious idea would be for each
group to try to establish the conception
of the good it thinks is best.
●Rawls thinks that this would display lack
of respect for people with other
conceptions of the good. Even if you
think your moral theory is correct, the
reasons for it aren’t so strong that it
●Given the fact that conceptions of the
good aren’t completely rationally
compelling, it is wrong to impose the
one you favor on others.
●To show respect for persons, given the
fact of reasonable pluralism, you must
justify your policies by reasons every
reasonable person could accept.
●Suppose, e.g., that someone thinks that Bible
forbids same-sex marriage. Rawls would say
that even if the majority agrees with this view,
it can’t impose it on others. They wouldn’t
accept what the Bible says as a reason.
●This doesn’t mean you have to come up with
reasons that absolutely everyone could
acknowledge. You only have to provide
reasons to reasonable people. Rawls calls
this process public reason.
Reasonable versus Rational
●Rawls distinguishes between the reasonable
and the rational. Someone is rational if he
picks suitable means to achieve his ends.
●He is reasonable if he wants to come to an
agreement with others who share this goal.
●As an example, Nazis might be rational: given
their ends, they might select effective means
to achieve them.But they aren’t reasonable.
●How can we reach agreement, even among
reasonable people, given the fact of
●People can establish a basic framework of
institutions and rules. Within this framework,
people can pursue their own conceptions of
the good. Each conception of the good will
provide reasons to accept the framework.
Rawls calls this overlapping consensus.
The Original Position
●How can people establish this basic
framework? The framework must be impartial
among different conceptions of the good.
●To secure impartiality, Rawls proposes that
people decide in an original position in which
they do not know basic facts about
themselves. They don’t know their own
abilities, preferences, or conceptions of the
good. They do know facts about how society
operates, e.g., laws of economics. Rawls
says that people in the original position are
●Michael Sandel, in Liberalism and the
Limits of Justice (1982), objected to the
veil of ignorance.
●He said that Rawls is assuming an
unencumbered self. Contrary to Rawls,
we cannot detach ourselves from our
commitments and conceptions of the
good. These are basic to our identity.
Is Sandel Right?
●Sandel’s objection rests on a mistake. Rawls
does not claim that we should view our
commitments as detachable from ourselves.
He can accept, though he doesn’t have to,
that such commitments form our identity.
●The veil of ignorance is just a thought
experiment designed to portray impartial
choice. It doesn’t imply that, in real life, we
can live apart from our commitments.
●How would people choose in the original
position? Each person is self-interested and
wants to live in accord with his own
conception of the good, but he doesn’t know
what this conception is.
●He does know that, regardless of his
conception of the good, he needs certain
things in order to lead a good life. Rawls calls
these things primary goods. They include
rights and liberties, powers and opportunities,
Choosing Primary Goods
●You need a certain amount of the primary
goods in order to pursue your conception of
the good. Once you get that amount, getting
more won’t be as important.
●Rawls thinks that in the original position, your
main goal will thus be to make sure you get
the primary goods you need. You will not
choose a principle that will risk falling below
the necessary level, even if the risky strategy
might give you more primary goods.
What Will Be Chosen?
●Rawls thinks that people in the original
position will pick a framework in which each
person has the maximum amount of rights
and liberties, consistent with equal rights and
liberties for all.
●The rights and liberties include civil liberties,
e.g., freedom of speech and religion, and the
right of political participation.
●These rights are lexically prior to the other
primary goods. They can’t be traded to get
more of the other goods, such as income and
Equal Liberties and Property
●Rawls’ equal rights do not include property
rights. If individuals have the right to acquire
property, then there would be no place for
Rawls’ egalitarian redistribution.
●Rawls has set up his system so that income
and wealth counts only as a primary good
that ranks below rights and liberties. He might
say that the libertarian view would be rejected
by some people, but so would his position. He
has assumed, but not argued, that people
don’t have the right to acquire property.
The Difference Principle
●Even if we accept Rawls’ view that property
rights aren’t in the lexically prior group, why
won't people in the original position choose to
establish a libertarian system of property?
●Rawls calls this the system of natural liberty.
He thinks that people wouldn’t choose it
because it is too risky. What if the system of
natural liberty leaves you without much
income or wealth?
The Difference Principle
●One suggestion is that people would choose
an equal distribution of wealth and income. In
that way, you can be sure you would have
least as much as anyone else. (Remember,
Rawls has strong egalitarian intuitions.)
●This leads to a problem. If people chose
equality, they would know that they might not
have as much incentive to produce as they
would if inequalities were allowed. Rawls
does not assume that people outside the
original position are motivated by egalitarian
How Rawls Solves His
●Rawls says people want to make sure they
have enough income and wealth; but a rule
mandating equality may result in less wealth
and income that one that allows inequality.
What can Rawls do?
●He resolves this tension through the second
part of the difference principle. ( The first part
covers equality of opportunity). All inequalities
have to be to the advantage of the least well-
off group in society. Thus, you are assured
that you will do at least as well as you would
The Difference Principle in
●It might turn out that a rule allowing
unlimited property acquisition, with no
compulsory redistribution, will be the
advantage of the least well-off group.
Then, there would be a Rawlsian
argument for the system of natural
liberty. Will Wilkinson and other
“Rawlsekians” have taken this line, but