Teaching Rawls after Piketty

by Chris Bertram on April 10, 2014

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 What we thought would be normal — widely spread prosperity, reduced income inequality, and constant growth — has been replaced by the world of the 1 per cent (indeed of the 1 per cent of the 1 per cent).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.



roger gathman 04.10.14 at 4:42 pm

The go go sixties showed, I think, that the blocking and forgetting of the progressive attempt to reform the financial markets – the engine of speculation – in the 1910s was going to have serious consequences down the road. Piketty and Saenz have show that the shift in wealth is from capital to earnings, but those earnings are, massively, in stocks, and thus management has become ever more rooted in speculation. This to my mind is one of the huge economic factors driving inequality. In 1911, the congress narrowly turned down a sweeping reform of economic governance, s.211, which would have made all interstate companies licence themselves with the Commerce department instead of the state in which they were hqed and would have prevented companies from issuing “new stock” for more than the cash value of their assets. Further, and truly radically, ‘whenever the amount of outstanding stock should exceed the value of assets, the secretary [of commerce] would require the corporation to call in all stock and issue new stock in lieu thereof in an amount not exceeding the value of assets, and each stockholder would be required to surrender the old stock and receive the new issue in an amount proportionate to the old holdings.”

This never happened. In the seventies, of course, we saw the dawn of financial “innovation” and the rise of the new kind of wealthy. This history is rather obscured by the notion of “property” owning – what kind of property, for instance, is a CDO?


ingrid robeyns 04.10.14 at 4:51 pm

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.

I’ve also (in seminar talks) heard this argument: another dysfunctional economic aspect of extreme riches is that this kind of money could much easier be spent on financial investments/project that can destabilize the economy, and thereby hurt all people, not just the rich. Put differently, with their excessive wealth accumulation, the extreme rich have the power to destabilize the economy, which is a power other consumers do not have. That mechanism sounds similar to the market power that monopolies have, only in this case it’s the destabilizing power that the extreme rich have.


Brett 04.10.14 at 5:07 pm

How does a widely-distributed capital ownership system work with the need to concentrate capital for a variety of economic tasks, such as (for example) the construction and R &D for semiconductors? Are they all going to be nationalized state firms? Banks or other financial intermediaries? Absentee ownership via widely spread stock ownership plans?


Chris Brooke 04.10.14 at 5:07 pm

Cf. Adam Smith on “prodigals and projectors”.


Pseudonymous McGee 04.10.14 at 5:09 pm

Piketty’s book is another opportunity to recognize that the kind of just society discussed by Rawls is not accessible to existing societies by any gradualist path, because the basis of material differences in Rawls’ just society is radically different from the actual bases of difference in existing society. Rawls’ abstract and analytical language hides a fundamentally revolutionary program from readers who fail to imagine the concrete implications of his principles. But that seems to be the common fate of popularized ethical innovations. A more sophisticated and clear articulation of moral criteria hasn’t had much traction on institutional practice.


Random Lurker 04.10.14 at 5:15 pm

“why bother working hard and training, when marriage or inheritance are the way to riches?”

To solve this incentive problem, I propose this new idea:

Since the wealthy ate all the carrots, we need to resort to the stick. We should rise unemployment so much, that people have to train and work hard or they won’t get any job.
Nobody could think of such a brilliant solution, but I did. I trademarked this solution as “theStickOfLove”, as it is a stick, but it’s all done for love of the proles, who could grow lazy and immoral without it.

Whatever political entity makes use of this policy has to pay me, Random Lurker, CEO and owner of the theStickOfLove corp., 2% of all profits due to increased productivity.


marcel 04.10.14 at 5:39 pm

And here, I always thought that “the Stick of Love” was a semi-pornographic anatomical reference.


Schadenboner 04.10.14 at 5:57 pm

@7 I’ve always been partial to calling it “the Rod of Correction”.


Limericky Dicky 04.10.14 at 6:02 pm

at a time when a just society looked like an emerging possibility

Wasn’t it much later, i.e post-Reagan/Thatcher, that he proposed ‘property-owning democracy’?

Also, what kind of property? Does Rawls give any good reason why we shouldn’t expect it to become concentrated, as is property’s usual tendency?


SN 04.10.14 at 6:05 pm

Please don’t take this the wrong way but: Nothing in the US even came close to approximating justice as Rawls describes it. Even in the late ’90s people I know who taught Rawls and were politically serious people knew this but they tended to go one of two ways. (1) They classed Rawls as ideal theory and lamented his centrality to political philosophy and the decline of Marxist analysis (2) They saw Rawls as a trenchant critic of the status quo.

The social reality as such is that Rawlsian justice isn’t possible under capitalism. Many people knew this 25 years ago (or earlier, probably). It is Rawls’ dominance of political philosophy that made this fact go on the back burner, not our once-thriving welfare state. At some point, maybe even Rawls doubted that we were on the road to justice since he floated some hopeful ideas for capitalist reforms at one point.

I hope Piketty makes clear what’s been true all along.


Plume 04.10.14 at 7:04 pm

I wish you would also do a seminar on The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire . . . by Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin.

I’m about 120 pages in, and am impressed with its scope, quality of research and wisdom of its analyses. It would make a very interesting parallel discussion along with Picketty.


christian_h 04.10.14 at 7:21 pm

I agree with Plume. Either way I am very much looking forward to it and if I can offer a wish it would be great if you invited a Marxist to participate, and also someone from the global South, e.g. Priyamvada Gopal (I haven’t read the book yet but from reviews my impression is it gives class struggle as a moving force short thrift and is mostly concentrating on inequality in highly developed countries.)


Ronan(rf) 04.10.14 at 8:03 pm

Plume – in case you missed it, there was one at Jacobin (which Henry F contributed to)


and at the new left project (which i cant link to or it might go into spam)


Cian 04.10.14 at 8:05 pm

How does a widely-distributed capital ownership system work with the need to concentrate capital for a variety of economic tasks, such as (for example) the construction and R &D for semiconductors?

Same way they are now presumably. A mixture of debt and retained profits. Stock is more a mechanism that allows early investors to realize profits, and to trade ownership rights on future capital streams. Even in the stock Anglo economies it isn’t particularly relevant to capital investment. And obviously alternative models such as Germany/Japan etc use it even less.


LFC 04.10.14 at 8:08 pm

Jeffrey E. Green, “Rawls and the Forgotten Figure of the Most Advantaged,” Am. Pol. Sci. Rev., February 2013, might be of some interest. I only looked at it quickly.
(n.b. There was an erratum in a subsequent issue indicating that Fig.1 is a redrawn version of a figure in Justice in Fairness: A Restatement; the permission line was inadvertently left off in the original article.)


LFC 04.10.14 at 8:12 pm

Justice *as* Fairness: A Restatement


Plume 04.10.14 at 8:14 pm


Thanks. I don’t know how, but I did miss that. Jacobin’s a favorite site o’ mine.

. . . .

Christian H,

Agreed. I hope they do invite a Marxist to discuss Piketty.

Last month, the NYT had a brief “debate”: Was Marx Right? . . . . and they managed somehow not to invite a single Marxist to the virtual panel. That’s some trick, if you can get away with it.


Cian 04.10.14 at 8:21 pm

Doug Henwood’s a Marxist. Arguably a fairly influential one. Not sure we’d have Jacobin without him.


bob mcmanus 04.10.14 at 8:43 pm

Piketty does mention Rawls (and Sen) near the end in a section “Modern Distribution:A Logic of Rights” and more extensively in the notes. His take-off is more from the Declaration of the Rights of Man, though.

At a purely theoretical level, there is in fact a certain (partly artificial) consensus concerning the abstract principles of social justice. The disagreements become clearer when one tries to give a little substance to these social rights and inequalities and to anchor them in specific historical and economic contexts.

Such questions will never be answered by abstract principles or mathematical formulas. The only way to answer them is through democratic deliberation and political confrontation.

The US and French Revolutions both affirmed equality of rights as an absolute principle—a progressive stance at that time. But in practice, during the nineteenth century, the political systems that grew out of those revolutions concentrated mainly on the protection of property rights.

As was Rawls, especially in the context of his times, protecting property rights against an expanding welfare state.


bob mcmanus 04.10.14 at 8:55 pm

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.

I disagree. The context preceding 1971, the context in which the book was written in the 1960s was an ever-expanding welfare state and a headlong leap toward democratic socialism. If ToJ had been written after 1985 I might view it differently.

The order of principles (And Piketty discusses this with reference to the quick amending of the Declaration of Rights) absolutely protects human/property rights over the needs of the least advantaged.

And thus with property rights and free speech given priority, the rich have bought the Supreme Court, the Congress, and the media.


bob mcmanus 04.10.14 at 9:17 pm

The liberal move “Well, Rawls compared to Nozick” is the move that declares Communists and Socialists beyond the pale and deliberately and calculatedly states that the question of justice is about “how much property rights” instead “why and whither property rights” and therefore of course and intentionally protects property rights. It also creates a safe discourse space for the likes of Nozick.

My own discourse includes Rawls, who is very wrong, and excludes Nozick, who isn’t worth discussing even to refute or condemn.


harry b 04.10.14 at 9:25 pm

Rawls is completely unambiguous about what liberties the Liberty Principle protects, Bob. You’re misreading him.

Chris — so, should we assign Piketty in our political philosophy classes?


roy belmont 04.10.14 at 9:31 pm

“the rich have bought the Supreme Court, the Congress, and the media”

Like buying a car, right? they bought the wheels, the windshield, the upholstery, the engine…
But what is the whole thing that has been purchased? Human destiny?
The right to shape the face of the race, in their own image? Getting through the Darwinian bottleneck soon upon us?
A constriction in who lives long enough to reproduce and care for their young, and then consequently, inevitably, essentially who’s here. Patriarchal wet dreams, and long-distance promises.
This as science teeters on the brink of the verge of processes of longevity that shade toward immortality. Who needs slaves or peons when we can genetically modify dogs? Robots.
It isn’t just a pathetic vision of some impossible maintenance of the current status quo ante, it’s a pathetic vision of how to get your genes through trouble, and into the future. What good are abstract principles in the light of that? What argument can prevail against it?
We had a period of civilized anti-Darwinian struggle and insistence on non-evolutionary collectively-regulated compassion – human rights! – and out of that umbrella of protection crawls some marginal creature, now safe in the center, and now it clamors to trim the margins – where it came from, but no longer dwells.
So back to evolution. Austerity.
Destiny the sole moral valence. So all moral questions get answered subjectively.
No strategy that works is unthinkable, because efficacy is all that matters.
Contempt – in this case for the bewildered and disempowered, and their noisy champions – is still, always, the signifier.


Chris Bertram 04.10.14 at 9:49 pm

Harry, it is nearly 600 pages long. I was planning to talk about it and maybe use the passage from Balzac. I’d certainly recommend it to students, but I can’t think of a short enough excerpt to use. Maybe someone else can?


Tom Hurka 04.10.14 at 10:17 pm

“Rawls’s book took us way beyond that, challenging the glib assumptions about desert that the winners flattered themselves with”

I’m sorry, but Rawls was the master of glibness on this topic, attacking at length a position no one has ever held (that people deserve income for being morally virtuous), imposing an impossible condition (that you can only deserve x on the basis of y if you also deserve y), and arguing that if we can’t tell how much something depends on x and how much it depends on y we should proceed as if it depends entirely on y.

A lot of people want to believe Rawls’s conclusions, and they’re often attractive. But that’s no excuse for ignoring the frequent feebleness of his arguments.


LFC 04.10.14 at 10:34 pm

mcmanus @19
As was Rawls, especially in the context of his times, protecting property rights against an expanding welfare state.

Yikes. This is so wrong it’s not even funny. R. started publishing the papers that became TJ in the ’50s not the ’60s. So this stuff about he’s writing it w/ an expanding welfare state in the background is exaggerated. More to the point, he says nothing to indicate he’s opposed to an expanding welfare state; really, the contrary.


LFC 04.10.14 at 10:35 pm

And the middle paragraph of mcmanus @20 is also wrong. Just flat-out wrong.


BCC 04.10.14 at 10:57 pm

Speaking of book events, it looks like the one for Felix Gilman isn’t listed on the sidebar.


bob mcmanus 04.10.14 at 11:04 pm

Long piece by John Molyneux – Marxist on Rawls, deals with the way both principles protect property. Again, the context in the 60s was not Liberatarianism on the march, that didn’t really come until the late 70s. Nasser and right socialisms, Castro & Che, Ho Chi Minh, South America…the political context during the 60s was the left on the rise.

“An alternative approach which, superficially, might appear distinctively Marxist, is to contrast Rawls’ conclusions with social reality as Marxists see it” …this Molyneux choose not to do, but is essentially the way Piketty, thank goodness he returned to France, just shrugs Rawls off as intentionally ahistorical and anti-empirical.

A 4th approach might be to measure the importance of a book of political philosophy by its effects on enacted policy. The lightning bolt of ToJ shot around the world and we got…Thatcher and Reagan. Unfair these things take time. We must compare the power of Rawls on its 50th anniversary and then we can compare it with Capital 1868-1918. Trends are not encouraging, but any moment now.

I won’t hold my breath.


Blain 04.10.14 at 11:14 pm

Great post! My response to reading a number of summaries and reviews of Piketty’s book (I won’t be able to read the book properly until this summer) has been pretty much identical to that expressed by Chris Bertram here.

If Piketty’s analysis is correct, it vindicates Rawls’s claim that capitalist societies (whether ‘laissez-faire’ or ‘welfare state’ in nature) cannot be just over time (stable for the ‘right reasons’), as well as why ‘property-owning democracies’ require (inter alia) that bequeathments be taxed at a high rate (to prevent the growth of de facto aristocracies).


Blain 04.10.14 at 11:28 pm

In response to post 9:
Rawls does discuss the idea of a ‘property-owning democracy’ in TJ (e.g., see p. 242 of the rev. ed.).
In the “Introduction to the Revised Edition,” though, he writes: “Another revision I would now make is to distinguish more sharply the idea of a property-owning democracy (introduced in Chapter V) from the idea of a welfare state. These ideas are quite different … One major difference is that the background institutions of property-owning democracy … tries to disperse the ownership of wealth and capital, and thus to prevent a small part of society from controlling the economy and indirectly political life itself. Property-owning democracy avoids this … by ensuring the widespread ownership of productive assets and human capital…” (p. xiv-xv).


GiT 04.11.14 at 12:04 am

I can’t remember why now but at some point it seemed to me to make sense to view Rawls as a liberal (white) Christian trying to think of a hunky dory way to accommodate the civil rights movement. Now I only have the thought and none of the thinking that led to it, but there it is.


bob mcmanus 04.11.14 at 12:05 am

30:Aw hell, why not just rename it the “ownership society,” give George W Bush half the credit, and argue the details with the Cato Institute.

Review of McNeil and Williamson by Weithman at Notre Dame, all I can really take.

Rawls says that an ideal institutional description “abstracts from its political sociology, that is, from an account of the political, economic and social elements that determine its effectiveness in achieving its public aims.”[8] Here I take Rawls to mean that he puts aside a host of practical problems that might beset a regime once it is institutionalized, such as collective-action and information problems, and the difficulties of generating stabilizing forces. For purposes of the argument at hand, Rawls idealizes by assuming that the institutions described can and will realize their characteristic aims.

Good grief.


LFC 04.11.14 at 1:13 am

I think you (mcmanus) are the one being ahistorical if you think that TJ was written with ‘the sixties’ uppermost in R’s mind. The anti-Vietnam War mvt and civil rts mvt might have influenced his discussion of civil disobedience and maybe some other things, but the bk should not, imo, be read primarily as a response to, or product of, the sixties.

I’m not sure what the pt of your ref to the 60s is, unless you want to show that R was not a radical leftist in the mold of some writers of that era, which is obvs. true, but so what? He didn’t help lay the groundwork for Thatcher and Reagan, that came out of diff. forces, plus the bk itself was mostly read only by academics and their students. It did eventually seep into public discourse but in truncated forms.

Not every bk that makes a huge splash on publication is widely remembered decades later. Unpacking a couple of boxes recently I unearthed a nice hardcover copy of Charles Reich’s The Greening of America. There’s still some interesting (plus some rather wacky) stuff in it. I mentioned unpacking ‘Greening’ to someone I know and his response was basically a blank. TJ, on the other hand, has lasted partly b.c, one might suggest, it was *not* simply a product of its era.

Though the trentes glorieuses referred to by Chris B. in the OP appears, in hindsight, to be something of an aberrational period, I take Chris’s basic pt in the OP to be that, to the extent R justified some inequalities because e.g. they incentivized specialized training or the acquisition of skills that took a long time to acquire, that justification for inequality is perhaps not where classroom attention shd heavily focus in an era when overall within-country income and wealth inequalities have deepened (and esp those in the US, which does less redist. thru taxation/transfers). And more basically Chris is saying to expand the focus beyond income (which is where discussions of R. sometimes concentrate) to wealth. Which makes sense and I doubt anyone here wd object to it.


mdc 04.11.14 at 1:31 am

“30:Aw hell, why not just rename it the “ownership society,” give George W Bush half the credit, and argue the details with the Cato Institute.”

Because Rawls’ notion could include the appropriation wealth by the state. Private ownership of the means of production does not follow from Rawls’ principles, as he himself points out.


mdc 04.11.14 at 1:32 am

missing “of”


Clay Shirky 04.11.14 at 1:47 am


In one of his late essays, Rorty abandoned some of his optimism on the increase of decency we might show to one another, saying something like “I now worry that there may not be enough money in the world to lift everyone out of poverty.” (The intersection of my memory and Google’s has failed; any pointers gratefully fielded.)

His own career, forged in the Trente Glorieuses, seems to have taken for granted that the material conditions for basic decency were being produced as a side-effect of the world being the way it was, and his task was to make a case for ‘justice as larger loyalty’ in that world. I only remember that one passage where he considered the possibility that it was easier to be decent in a world where labor was able to capture a relatively large slice of income, and that the failure of that condition might make his project impossible.

Reading Piketty I wished (not for the first time) that Rorty was still alive, so we could read his reaction.


LFC 04.11.14 at 2:18 am

correction to my comment @33:
trente not trentes (sigh)


js. 04.11.14 at 2:30 am

It might be worth noting that “Justice as Fairness” was published in ’57 (I think), and it already contains the two principles of justice (except for the minimax specification of the Difference Principle).


LFC 04.11.14 at 2:41 am

Yes, I was going to note the pub. date of “Justice as Fairness,” which (acc. to the preface of orig. ed. of TJ, where it’s mentioned), is 1958, in The Philosophical Review. (But then I decided my comment was already long enough.)

@Clay Shirky
I haven’t read v. much Rorty, but I kind of remember that quote, which leads me to think it might have first appeared in an essay he wrote in Dissent — maybe (?) “Back to Class Politics,” 1997, or maybe another one. (But Google isn’t v. helpful and I don’t currently have subscription access to the Dissent archives to check.)


js. 04.11.14 at 2:53 am

LFC, thanks.

This is a great post. And I think the point about how exposition of Rawls focuses on incentives and income in not terribly relevant ways is exactly right. (Now I just really need that Picketty book to get here already!)


Jim Buck 04.11.14 at 10:32 am


“Clear-headed Darwinian animals” are no longer in need of armies, military and industrial; and letting the surplus population wither away has the happy result of recovering an Eden for the blessed 1%.


Random Lurker 04.11.14 at 11:09 am

@Jim Buck
Hey, “Government” caused WW1, the Great Depression, and WW2, apparently as a mean to increase taxes!!
Who could have suspected it? That article opened my eyes!


Sherparick 04.11.14 at 11:26 am

By the way, it is not just inheritance of wealth, but inheritance of status, social connections, and the bubble they create for themselves. It is sometimes good to use raw numbers as well as %. .1% of the U.S. population is still 350,000 people. If they interact socially only with each other, they believes, as “Tiny Revolution” stated two years ago that since they have been firehosed with money the last 30 years, everyone must be doing just as well. Their privilege is invisible to them as the air they breathe and their indifference and loathing for those outside their blessed circle grows. http://www.tinyrevolution.com/mt/archives/003537.html


bianca steele 04.11.14 at 1:11 pm

Clay @ 26
I have a dentist appointment and don’t have time to type it all in, but it’s in “Love and Money,” which appeared in 1992 in the first issue of the (I believe short-lived) Common Knowledge, p. 226 of Philosophy and Social Hope. The whole piece is only five and a half pages, the actual quote there is “that there will never be enough money in the world to redeem the South.” A page earlier Rorty has described his abandonment of Marx for top-down solutions, and concluded that equality in the North is foreseeable. Though somewhere, in an earlier book he talks about “science,” and after reading a few times, I decided he did mean to include Marx within “science,” but I don’t think he ever specified, so who knows.


Harlan Green 04.11.14 at 2:21 pm

Of course, if stock ownership were more widespread, then we would have real democracy, instead of the plutocracy we have. But that would mean leveling the investment playing field, so that Wall Street functioned as Main Street. I.e., most of the risk of investing would be gone with better regulations of transparency, employees with more access to stock ownership, etc. Today’s stock/asset markets are based on obfuscation, buyer beware, rather than transparency that would allow greater distribution of wealth, less inequality.


Clay Shirky 04.11.14 at 2:51 pm

LFC, thanks. My wife’s writing something for Dissent, so I’ll see if she has access to the archives.

And Jim Buck @41: omgomgomg. That article reads like a parody of Forbe’s “N-E-1 C4N BL0G 4 US!!!1!” strategy. The only Shorter Forbes I can pull out of that thing is: Piketty is not Grover Norquist.


Clay Shirky 04.11.14 at 2:52 pm

Bianca @44, many thanks. Off to the bookshelf…


Peter K. 04.11.14 at 3:07 pm

Jim Buck @41 wow what a book review. These people are really cocooning. It reminds me of how confident they were that Romney would win and were shocked when he lost.

To the OP, my layman’s amateur’s view of Rawls is associated with his thought experiment about the veil of ignorance. How would one set up a just society if one didn’t know where’s one place would be in it? Most people wouldn’t want an undemocratic society with high levels of inequality.


Josh G. 04.11.14 at 3:56 pm

Tom Hurka @ 25: “I’m sorry, but Rawls was the master of glibness on this topic, attacking at length a position no one has ever held (that people deserve income for being morally virtuous)…”

Really? No one ever held that position? Because it looks to me like this is pretty much exactly what Ayn Rand and modern Republicans claim.


Doctor Bob 04.11.14 at 4:07 pm

Re: leftist expansion of the 60s & 70s. Commentators like bob mcmanus speak of the left on the rise and a headlong leap toward democratic socialism. I think that they confuse the surface and pseudo-events with the substance underneath- the Greening of America and consciousness III fit right in. That book grew out of a piece in the New Yorker, became a best seller and was lauded by Time magazine. The 60s and 70s brought big changes in attitudes toward sex, music and drug use but the levers of power remained in the hands of the few. Daniel Bell’s Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism is interesting in that regard. Bell claims incorrectly that state expenditures now (mid 70s) approximate 40% of GNP and expects that the US government will become a “cumbersome, bureaucratic monstrosity” p 24-25. Bell is horrified by Consciousness III and the exaltation of sex and spontaneity by Reich, Theodore Roszak and others. Rawls focuses on a different level but ignores the growing ability of the wealthy to shift dissatisfaction with life onto the poor and unwashed. Daniel Boorstin saw this; he published The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America in 1961 before the Vietnam War and the counter culture.


LFC 04.11.14 at 4:32 pm

@Dr Bob
the Greening of America and consciousness III fit right in. That book grew out of a piece in the New Yorker, became a best seller and was lauded by Time magazine. The 60s and 70s brought big changes in attitudes toward sex, music and drug use but the levers of power remained in the hands of the few.

Reich’s argument was that changes in culture and consciousness would eventually lead to a transformation of the political (and the economic) system. In 1970, I suppose, this did not seem quite as implausible as it may seem now, and Reich in the acknowledgments, iirc, mentions his debt to Marcuse. The bk stirred so much debate that a paperback collection of reactions and reviews, The Con III Controversy, was published.

p.s. The Wiki entry on Reich is brief but informative, and has some links.


Plume 04.11.14 at 4:52 pm


Piketty’s book, which I should receive next week, will be vital when it comes to putting numbers on faces. But we need other works to put faces on numbers, for without that, eyes tend to glaze over. Unless, of course, he manages to do both, and that would be an amazing achievement.

What Sam Gindin and Leo Panitch have done (The Making of Global Capitalism), OTOH, at least for me, is to show the massive lop-sidedness when it comes to power relations keeping capitalism upright and expanding. I knew that the forces arrayed to protect it, expand it, defend it, were colossal, but I never really pictured the cancerous growth of bureaucracy in its service until I started reading their book. When anyone suggests something to the effect that if leftist alternatives to capitalism were viable, we’d have them by now, I’d point them to the history of structures and the historical growth of those structures, supporting the expansion of capitalism . . . and then ask these same people to find equivalent opposition or the remotest sense of a “fair fight.”

It doesn’t exist.

Which makes me think that those who speak of “practicalities and pragmatics” forget their own advice. The real reason we don’t have alternatives to capitalism, or even Rawlsian mitigation, is because the real left, the actual left, is simply not equipped to compete against the massive power of reactionary states, led by America, when it comes to the perpetual promotion, defense and expansion of a truly despicable economic system. The left, instead, is left with . . . . philosophy, morality, ethics. It doesn’t have Wall Street, IMF, WTO or any of a thousand other heavy-hitting bureaucracies all in the service of capitalist dominance.

We can talk, have webinars, others can teach the theory of justice, etc. etc. But none of this can begin to matter until we organize. And we won’t organize until enough people on the left, including the social-democratic left, which is typified in many ways by CT, really understands just what we’re up against.

From the reviews, it appears Piketty at least helps set the table.


Plume 04.11.14 at 4:54 pm

really understand . . .


bob mcmanus 04.11.14 at 5:07 pm

I wasn’t so much thinking of the counter-culture as much as the strength of unions, the civil rights movement, the Great Society, OSHA and EPA, even the finalization of the Highway system and the Space program. And I am also looking overseas, Piketty says the peak of income equality was in Sweden in the 70s. With the benefit of hindsight and Rick Perlstein we can perhaps see the left in decline and the right on the rise, but I don’t think it was at all viewed that way at the time. Quite a few anti-communists were feeling like they were losing, and however false, the argument during the 70s was whether the Soviets were winning the Cold War. Thus the neo-cons.

Part of this is indeed a fatalism and irresponsibility of the current center-left, seeing some kind of inevitability to the origins of our current weakness. Pelerin and Powell-memo were bound to get us.

I m pretty sure I read Greening back then. And Making of Counter-Culture, Lasch, and Toffler. I was middle-brow til the 70s.


William Timberman 04.11.14 at 6:19 pm

It may be time for me to stop reading, at least for a while:

Rawls. abstraction almost — but not quite — to the point of irrelevance might help clear away some of the fog.

Rorty. There are no mysteries of any significance in what goes on between our ears. If we could just stop thinking about thinking, we might begin to get somewhere.

Foucault. Nothing is what it seems, and that’s a good thing.

Piketty. I’ve looked at the numbers, and they are not our friends.

Viewing the elephant, one piece at a time — and then someone down the street says Obama is a decent man overwhelmed by events. What have you leftists ever accomplished? or I’m not a racist, but those people just want something for nothing, or it’s really very simple….

It isn’t. Simple, that is. Which is why I’ll undoubtedly get over my funk and go back to reading sooner than I presently expect….


Sam Clark 04.11.14 at 8:13 pm

This is an old argument, and not really to the point, but I can’t resist responding to Tom Hurka:

I’m sorry, but Rawls was the master of glibness on this topic, attacking at length a position no one has ever held (that people deserve income for being morally virtuous), imposing an impossible condition (that you can only deserve x on the basis of y if you also deserve y), and arguing that if we can’t tell how much something depends on x and how much it depends on y we should proceed as if it depends entirely on y.

1) Lots of people – among them some of my students, and I’d guess some of Professor Hurka’s students too – believe that there is a pre-institutional fact about what economic and social rewards (roughly, money and status) people deserve, which is a consequence of some individual merit of their own, usually understood as talent plus hard work. That’s what Rawls is arguing against.

2) His argument is not that desert itself has to be deserved (Nozick is here, as elsewhere, a careless reader of A Theory of Justice). It’s not any general principle about desert, as he makes clear by endorsing a merit-based principle of just punishment. It’s a consistency argument about his particular problem, which is just distribution of the products of social cooperation:

* we (that is, heirs of the liberal democratic tradition) don’t believe that the ‘social lottery’ in class position has any relevance to entitlements: being the Duke of Devonshire’s nephew doesn’t give you any just claim on extra money or status, because that family connection is morally arbitrary.

* so why should we believe anything different about the ‘natural lottery’ in talent and the ability to work hard? It’s equally morally arbitrary. Unless we can show some relevant difference between the two cases, (a) we should drop desert here too, or (b) we should go back to fawning over the Devonshire boy.

* Rawls of course says that there is no relevant difference between the natural and social lotteries – and leaves it as a challenge to his opponents to show one – and that we should pick (a): ‘the notion of desert does not apply here’. The principle of just distribution has nothing to do with individual merit.


engels 04.13.14 at 2:43 am

[1]individiual merit… understood as talent plus hard work. That’s what Rawls is arguing against
[2]the ‘natural lottery’ in talent and the ability to work hard

Can’t remember this at all but if the above is a fair summary isn’t the obvious comeback that adherents of [1] believe that most people have the ability to work hard but choosing to exercise it is a merit worthy, free choice?


david 04.13.14 at 7:11 am

Chris @24 –

Why not assign Piketty and Zucman’s QJE paper (pdf)? 35 pages long. It is also an exact statement of the thesis, so discussion does not get bogged down in interpretational issues.


Gaddeswarup 04.13.14 at 9:41 am

David@59 is not part of the thesis in http://gabriel-zucman.eu/files/PikettyZucman2014HID.pdf


Sam Clark 04.13.14 at 11:55 am

Engels: that is the obvious comeback. One reply (which is consistent with but not actually in aToJ) is that ‘ability to X’ is ambiguous. We sometimes use it to mean the bare possibility of X-ing, which one could freely choose to take up or not. But Rawls is talking about the capacity and disposition to X, which is a product of natural and social lotteries: you don’t get to pick your parents or your upbringing or your schooling or your wider social context, which all have huge consequences for your capacity and disposition to concentrate, to defer gratification, to make long-term plans, to motivate yourself, etc.

(Paging Chris Bertram’s new colleague Tim Fowler, who is a much more stalwart defender of Rawls than I am…)


mdc 04.14.14 at 3:06 am

Sam Clark and engels:

It’s my impression that many people do think (implausibly) that with enough hard work, anyone can achieve anything- that there is ‘opportunity’ for all. But this is actually irrelevant to the also-widely-held claim that we should have *equality* of opportunity. A moment’s reflection reveals that we are staggeringly far from equality of opportunity, even if it would be endorsed by parties in the original position. Although it’s sometimes derided as limp, formalistic liberalism, equality of opportunity– thought through along Rawls’ lines– is pretty massively egalitarian and would require drastic reform of our current condition.


engels 04.15.14 at 3:58 am

Thanks, Sam. Based on your summary though, the lib dem trad thinks that hard work merits material rewards but Rawls has shown only that the disposition to hard work is genetically or socially inherited. Couldn’t ldt think that whether or not one is disposed to hard work, working hard is a voluntary act which merits reward, just as whether or not one is disposed to criminality, commiting a crime is a voluntary act which merits punishment?

That said, I don’t understand why Rawls thinks anyone thinks one would not deserve social rewards on the basis of a genetically determined trait anyway (my friend David is a talented artist who deserves success – his talent is a gift, I couldn’t paint like him however hard I tried). Rawls’ argument in #57 seems a bit like a judge saying ‘you tell me I can’t give the prize to Danny just because he’s my son, but I can give it to Tammy, because she is the more talented poet – but Tammy’s poetic talent is just as much an accident of birth as Danny’s family origins!’ – not terribly convincing to my (admittedly Rawlsphobic) ears.


Straightwood 04.16.14 at 5:21 pm

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