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  • Writer's pictureRiver Champeimont

What makes a just society?

In this article, I will introduce the theory of John Rawls, which offers a thought experiment to determine what a just society is, and seeks to propose an ideal compromise between classical liberalism and socialism. These ideas are often called social liberalism in Europe and simply liberalism in the United States.

This is the English translation of my article “Qu'est-ce qu'une société juste ?” (in French).

What I am going to present here are some of the ideas presented by Rawls in his famous book, A Theory of Justice. His theory makes it possible to deal with extremely varied subjects, such as fundamental rights, social inequalities, democracy or even morals, but I have chosen here to focus on the subject that interested me the most in his theory, because it is certainly the most revolutionary: the handling of social inequalities.

The Veil of Ignorance

To discover the principles of a just society, Rawls proposes the following thought experiment. Imagine that you could think about the principles of a just society before you are born and live your life. You do not know yet if you will be born into a rich or poor family, what your race will be, what intellectual and physical skills you will get, in which religion you will be educated, what your moral values ​​will be, and what goal you are going to set for yourself in life. This ignorance of your future life is what Rawls calls the “veil of ignorance” because your future identity is hidden from you, like with a veil.

Take the example of a society where laws are racist. Such a society is not fair if we apply this reasoning, because individuals behind the veil of ignorance would never choose racist principles, since they could then be born and live their lives as part of the group victim of racism. Behind the veil of ignorance, it is therefore necessary to choose principles which will not disadvantage any group of individuals.

Personally, I find this reasoning very convincing. For laws to be morally defensible, we must indeed be able to defend them even imagining that we could have been born in a different social environment and under different conditions. If not, we are just defending privileges. Of course, we can accept that the veil of ignorance is a good way to think about just laws, but criticize the consequences that Rawls draws from it, which we will see now.

The Principles of Justice

Let us now ask ourselves what principles the individuals behind the veil of ignorance would choose to found a society. According to Rawls, they would choose the following two main principles:

  1. Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for others.

  2. Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both:

    1. reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage,

    2. attached to positions and offices open to all.

The first principle corresponds to fundamental rights such as the right to life, freedom of thought, religion, expression, the right to a fair trial, and private ownership of goods. The only limits that can be set on these freedoms are those necessary to guarantee the same freedoms to other individuals. Here we recognize the classic idea that ​​”the freedom of one ends where the freedom of others begins”.

But let's focus on the second principle, which is undoubtedly Rawls' most revolutionary idea. Rawls offers here an alternative to socialist/egalitarian theories and classical liberal thought.

Indeed, for classical liberals and libertarians, inequalities are just as long as the wealth has been earned honestly, by voluntary exchanges and without benefiting from legal privileges or violating the property of others.

On the contrary, for socialists, liberalism is unjust because it leads to inequalities that are not justified by harder work or a greater merit. The greater inequalities that are caused by the balance between supply and demand must be eradicated and wage scales must be set collectively. For communists, businesses must be managed by the community directly, which simplifies the realization of this ideal.

But one could argue, rightfully, that socialist regimes have not been very successful. Worse, while these systems were supposed to achieve the greatest happiness for the working class, the latter was often poorer in socialist economies than in capitalist ones. Its members had access to fewer goods and services than their counterparts in capitalist economies, even though they lived in a more egalitarian society.

Inequalities to everyone’s advantage

Rawls thinks that both socialists and classical liberals are wrong. Socialists are too dogmatic in rejecting inequalities in principle, although inequalities can be a motivation to create businesses and thus improve the well-being of everyone, including the poorest, thanks to the progress generated by entrepreneurs. But classical liberals are also mistaken, for they allow inequalities to grow to a point far beyond what is necessary to reap these benefits.

How to find the ideal compromise? Rawls proposes the “difference principle” to answer this question. The term might sound complicated, but the idea is very simple: the best society is the one that maximizes the long-term wealth of those who are the most disadvantaged.

Rawls' difference principle applied to a simple example with two categories.

Political consequences

A question often discussed in the public debate is the redistribution of wealth and more generally the acceptable level of inequalities. According to the left, progressive taxes are needed to promote redistribution. On the opposite, conservatives insist that too much redistribution discourages entrepreneurs from starting up businesses, or drives them out of the country, and in the end generates less wealth for everyone.

If we apply Rawls' principle to this question, we should promote more redistribution of wealth if the benefits for the most disadvantaged are greater than their loss generated by the lower level of entrepreneurship and economic activity generated by these policies. The objective is, in a way, to define a social minimum that is the highest possible without ultimately being counterproductive for the people we are trying to help.

“But once an suitable minimum is provided by transfers, it may be perfectly fair that the rest of total income be settled by the price system [= the free market], assuming that it is moderately efficient and free from monopolistic restrictions, and unreasonable externalities have been eliminated.” John Rawls in A Theory of Justice

Note that this differs from the argument that you need to have the strongest economic growth to have “the biggest possible cake to share”. For Rawls, it's not the total size of the cake that matters, but the size of the smallest slice. In this cake analogy, the excess of egalitarianism corresponds to the case where society ends up with a cake so much smaller that even the smallest part is reduced.

In addition to choosing a just level of redistribution, the chosen policies must try to degrade as little as possible the functioning of the economy, in order to limit its counterproductive effects. For example, a higher minimum wage is often presented as a measure in favor of the most disadvantaged, but in reality, if it is too high, it can on the contrary harm them by making it harder to find a job.

Why is this rule the right one?

One could wonder about the legitimacy of this principle. Why wouldn't the right principle rather be to have the most wealth in total, that is to say to maximize economic growth? Thus, by drawing a random life in the veil of ignorance thought experiment, you would maximize your chances of gain.

To understand, let's return to the veil of ignorance. If you don’t know which life you're going to live, you would want to protect yourself against the worst case. You're not looking for the biggest cake possible for everyone because you anticipate that if you're born in a disadvantaged situation, it probably won't comfort you to know that, on average, people are richer because of the sacrifice you made (they are richer, but not you, bad luck!). It is this desire to insure one against the worst case that justifies Rawls's principle to give the best possible life to the most disadvantaged.

My opinion and conclusion

I have summarized here Rawls' ideas on inequalities presented in A Theory of Justice, but if you are interested in these ideas, I encourage you to read his book because there are many nuances that I could not explain here and other exciting topics that are discussed.

While writing this article, I find these ideas quite convincing. As I explained in my article “Capitalism is still the best system”, I am convinced that a market economy remains the best economic system, including for the most disadvantaged. But I also think that it is necessary, if only for political stability, that the level of inequalities can be at a level justifiable as being to the benefit of all.

What do you think ? Does Rawls propose a relevant criterion or does he demand a too radical equality? Are western societies satisfactory from the point of view of its criterion?

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