Rawls, Bentham and the Laffer Curve

by John Quiggin on September 8, 2014

The 1970s saw two important and influential publications in the long debate over justice, equality and public policy. In 1971, there was Rawls Theory of Justice, commonly described in terms like “magisterial”. Then in 1974, at lunch with Jude Wanniski, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, Arthur Laffer drew his now-eponymous curve on a napkin. Of course there was nothing new about the curve: it’s pretty obvious that an income tax levied at rates of either zero or 100 per cent isn’t going to raise any money (* or, in the 100 per cent case, not very much money), and interpolation does the rest. What was new was the Laffer hypothesis, that the US at the time was on the descending side of the curve, where a reduction in tax rates would raise tax revenue.

I’ve always understood Rawls in terms of the Laffer curve, as arguing in essence that we should be at the very top of the curve, maximizing the resources available for transfer to the poor, but not (as, say, Jerry Cohen might have advocated) going further than this to promote equality.

A couple of interesting Facebook discussions have led me to think that I might be wrong in my understanding of Rawls and that the position I’ve imputed to him is actually far closer to that of classical utilitarianism in the tradition of Bentham (which is, broadly speaking, my own view).

Facebook has its merits, but promoting open public discussion isn’t one of them, so I thought I’d throw this out to the slightly larger world of blog readers.

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