We’re hoping to have a proper book event on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century in due course. That’s hard for those of us who have read it, because the book is so stimulating, so bursting with surprising facts and ideas, that there’s a lot to talk about. Still, I think I’ll permit myself to share a few thoughts that I had about the way in which reading Piketty might impact on teaching political philosophy, and, specifically, teaching Rawls and the difference principle.
A Theory of Justice came out in 1971 and was composed during the period the French call the trente glorieuses . During that period it was easy to believe that the power of inherited wealth had melted away and that we were living in a new era of more equal opportunity, with careers open to talents and income inequalities largely explained by the differences in talent and ability that the parties in the original position were denied knowledge of. To be sure, 1960s America (like 1960s Europe) hadn’t accomplished that social-democratic meritocratic ideal, but it was kind of visible in embryo, waiting to be born. Rawls’s book took us way beyond that, challenging the glib assumptions about desert that the winners flattered themselves with, but in its toleration of some inequality for the greater good (and particularly for the benefit of the least advantaged), Rawls’s view was recognizably connected to a then-emerging social reality.
Today things look very different. What we thought would be normal—widely spread prosperity, reduced income inequality, and constant growth—has been replaced by the world of the 1 per cent (indeed of the 1 per cent of the 1 per cent). Accumulated wealth and capital ownership in the hands of the few, which never completely went away but retreated into the shadows, is back and (if Piketty is right), threatens to subject us all to the dominance of a new rentier class if we don’t do something pretty drastic fairly soon.
I suspect, though, that the teaching of Rawls hasn’t really moved on in the light of the new social reality. Though Rawls actually writes explicitly about income and wealth , much of the classroom (and textbook) exposition of Rawls inevitably focuses on functional inequalities in income from labour (to provide incentives etc). With inequalities in wealth (and inherited wealth) being both more extreme and of growing importance in actual societies, there’s quite a lot of scope to include in our teaching (i) an account of the shocking facts about inequalities in wealth as Piketty documents them and (ii) to notice that so much of that wealth inequality is non-functional and even dysfunctional as it actually disincentivizes work and the development of skill. Piketty’s constant return to Vautrin’s advice to Rastignac in Balzac’s Père Goriot is instructive here: in a rentier society, why bother working hard and training, when marriage or inheritance are the way to riches? We need to get across to our students that a society in which inequalities of reward to work exist but are functional is even further from the society in which we actually live than they (and the media) normally assume.
However even though Rawls was writing at a time when a just society looked like an emerging possibility and when private wealth was in remission, he also provided (via the influence of James Meade) an attractive alternative to the society Piketty believes we are turning into. Specifically, I’m thinking of Rawls’s ideal of a property-owning democracy, a society with widely dispersed capital ownership and different forms of enterprise (an ideal most recently explored by Martin O’Neill and Thad Williamson in their collection Property-Owning Democracy: Rawls and Beyond ). Spreading the wealth, expropriating the expropriators somewhat, and giving us all a stake in society’s stock of capital and thereby assuring that citizenship and democracy are not sucked of their meaning by the super-rich: that’s a message on which Rawls’s normative theory and Piketty’s economic narrative converge.