Last week, I reread sections 11-13 of John Rawls’ book A Theory of Justice. The first time I was exposed to Rawls, I dismissed it as crazy left-wing talk. However, I realize now that Rawls is not your typical clueless leftist.
The key point that Rawls makes is that there’s a natural lottery of talents and abilities. Rawls understands what few liberals do; even if it’s somehow possible to create a society where there’s no adverse consequences to being born to lower class parents, it’s impossible to change the fact that some people are born with more natural abilities than others:
While the liberal conception seems clearly preferable to the system of natural liberty, intuitively it still appears defective. For one thing, even if it works to perfection in eliminating the influence of social contingencies, it still permits the distribution of wealth and income to be determined by the natural distribution of abilities and talents. Within the limits allowed by the background arrangements, distributive shares are decided by the outcome of the natural lottery; and this outcome is arbitrary from a moral perspective. There is no more reason to permit the distribution of income and wealth to be settled by distribution of natural assets than by historical and social fortune.
This is an extremely atypical liberal argument. If you tell the typical liberal that the poor people are poor because they are born with bad genes, the liberal will get pissed at you. Yet this is exactly what Rawls is saying, that poor people are poor because of their genes.
Rawls argues for redistribution of wealth (an idea anathema to conservatives) on the basis that it’s not fair that some people are born stupid. The argument for or against redistribution of wealth is very different after you factor in genetic differences in intelligence and other beneficial attributes in which people differ. In reading the typical right-wing-libertarian blog, one gets the sense that the typical right-wing-libertarian believes that he has morally earned his money. He is outraged that he has worked hard for his money, only to have it taken away from him and given to people too lazy to work for it. I agree that it is outrageous to reward sloth and punish industry. But I’ve worked enough jobs to know that the more money you make, the easier your job is. The guys working in the back of the restaurant for the minimum wage are busting their butts in order to cook food for you. In contrast, I’ve observed plenty of six-figure-salaried executives sitting in their offices and taking it easy.
Liberals, by denying that there are genetic differences in intelligence and other beneficial attributes, are destroying the most powerful argument in favor of distributive justice. Even worse, liberals have also denied equality of opportunity to smart people who have the misfortune of being born to lower class parents. Liberals see the smart prole kid as not worthy of special help, because he’s already doing so much better than the prole kids who aren’t reading at grade level. Liberals would rather waste money trying to get kids with below average intelligence to somehow magically become smart enough to attend college. Yet it’s the smart prole kid who is most in need of special help so he can achieve what he might if he were born to upper middle class parents.
In deciding what sort of society you would like, Rawls asks you to imagine yourself in an “original position” in which you haven’t yet been born, and you have no idea of what genes you will inherit or what social class you will be born into. What sort of society would you construct if you didn’t even know what genes you would be born with? Rawls correctly surmises that you would want a society with some sort of safety net in case you are born with bad genes. This assumes you are able to do the exercise. I think that very few smart people (and it’s only smart people who read Rawls) can imagine what it’s like to born stupid. Similarly, very few people with winning personalities can imagine what it’s like to be born with a mild case of Asperger’s syndrome.
Whatever society you’d want, if you had any common sense you wouldn’t want a communist society that lives by the communist motto “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” because that leads to a dysfunctional economy where people starve to death because no one has any incentive to grow crops. Rawls says that economic inequalities are allowed in a just society so long as they are “reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage.” It’s definitely better to be born in a society where there’s inequality but no danger of starving to death or dying an early death from disease.
Constructing a society with the ideal redistribution to help the less fortunate requires a sophisticated understanding of economics, and an awareness of genetically inherited differences in intelligence and behavior. Unfortunately, the typical liberal who champions redistribution of resources lacks these necessary requirements, and therefore he only talks nonsense. Most liberal policies are more geared to rewarding bad behavior (such as handing out welfare payments to women who give birth out of wedlock) rather than creating a more just society. And this has the effect of turning more rational-thinking people off to the whole concept of redistribution of wealth. But when redistribution is pondered in the Rawls manner, it doesn’t seem as nonsensical.
What’s the best way to redistribute wealth? I previously blogged in favor of an inheritance dividend, and it still seems like a viable idea.