Rawlsiana

by Chris Bertram on March 17, 2006

Philippe Van Parijs has made some correspondence with John Rawls concerning the Law of Peoples available on-line. The final two paragraphs of the Rawls letter are remarkable for their explicit anti-capitalism, a sentiment that is not so clearly expressed elsewhere in his work.

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Will Wilkinson / The Fly Bottle » Blog Archive » The Rawls Letter
03.17.06 at 11:36 am

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Matt 03.17.06 at 9:05 am

Thanks for posting this, Chris. These letters are mentioned by Samuel Freeman in his forthcomming book on Rawls but I’d not seen them published before. They are very interesting, both for seeing Rawls reply to a fairly common mis-reading of _LP_, but also his remarks on capitalism. Both, I think, are at least a bit wrong in their characterizations of the EU (treating things that are clearly still aspirational, such as the common market, as if they were established, etc.) and I really wish that _someone_ who quotes Mill on nationalism would at least acknowlegde that these remarks are made in the context of Mill’s support of colonialims, his paternalism towards people’s in their “nonage”, etc. (Kymlicka is the most guilty of this, I think, but I’d really like to see someone at least acknowledge this.) But, they are interesting letters well worth looking at. Thanks again for posting them. (Also, the implication from the refering page, not the letters themselves, that Nagel’s position is a restatement of the “central issue” of LP is at least a bit misleading, since Nagel’s position is in some important ways different from Rawls’s.)

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derek 03.17.06 at 11:46 am

Pardon my ignorance, but what do modern political thinkers mean when they say “capitalism”? What is it, what’s the definition?

I’m used to thinking of capitalism as the habit of owning stuff and offering workers the privilege of using it to make money, in return for a portion of that money. Alternatively, owning stuff and offering workers money to come use it to make money for the owners—either way, with the caveat that the stuff in question not be land.

Is there a more modern precise definition that people use today, or is it just a slang term meaning “the rich”, or “big corporations”?

And what does it mean to be “anti-capitalist”? I have a problem with corporate personhood, and also with the fiduciary duty of company directors to their shareholders. Am I an anti-capitalist, or something else?

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y81 03.17.06 at 1:16 pm

Curiously, a critique of capitalism from what might be considered the right, i.e., Rawls doesn’t say that capitalism oppresses the poor, but that it just gives everybody lots of stuff, when what people really want is local attachment etc. I think G.K. Chesterton (or maybe Patrick Buchanan) would have said about the same.

It is, of course, common among those with high SAT scores to believe that they know what everyone else “really” wants.

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zdenek 03.18.06 at 6:08 am

very interesting post but probably not accurate to describe Rawls criticism as criticism of capitalism as such i.e. it does not say that the bad consequences such as meaningless consumerism and so on are inescapable if capitalism is in place. It seems in other words that Rawls is worried about a specific flavour only ( where emphasis is on profit as opposed to prosperity and where the game is strictly zero-sum ). And it seems to me that Van Parijs interprets Rawls remarks in this way also because he says that he agrees with Ralws in this respect but goes on to suggest ‘cushioning’ mechanisms. This would explain ofcourse why Rawls is not openly hostile to capitalism in his T J.

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