John Rawls was an extremely brilliant man, and I have no doubt that he could say with a straight face that he knew well the arguments made by F. A. Hayek, Milton Friedman and James Buchanan. There is no doubt about that. But I am not sure he read these figures seriously, nor thought through the revisionist empirical accounts of the conventional wisdom circa 1970s that their work compelled one to do with respect to the socialist experiment, the Great Depression, and the rise of (and effectiveness of) the regulatory and welfare state in the 1950s-1970s.
Our empirical understanding of the record of the free market to be self-correcting in the face of potential frictions and social tensions, as well as the ability of the free market to generate generalized prosperity throughout the world has shifted radically since Rawls wrote The Theory of Justice, and established his two principles. But what if our understanding of the empirical record was one that placed emphasis on how the market economy is the means through which the world's poor climb out of poverty and integrate into the international division of labor, what would that do to Rawlsian positions with respect to the justice of capitalism such as that held by Thomas Pogge?
Pogge is a pasionate man, but his passion I believe prevents him from looking at the empirical record dispassionately and thus his analysis of the causes and consequences of economic development is comprimised. I "debated" these ideas with Pogge once at a conference at UVA, I say "debated" because there was no real engagement between us, just 2 "fighters" forced to stand in their respective corners after a few exchanges of jabs and hooks. I regret we didn't have a more engaging conversation.
I wrote to Pogge recently to invite him to be part of a symposium I am organizing for the RAE on William Easterly's The Tyranny of Experts, where unfortunately he has failed to respond to my inquiry. His passion for the topic of the world's poor makes him an intriguing figure to me, but his unwillingness to learn anything from basic economic reasoning other than aspects of the economic literature that confirm his biases frustrates me perhaps more than any other current social thinker I wish to engage. I am not really interested in "fighting", but instead in figuring thing out, and coming to a mutual understanding on the issue of how best to address the problem of poverty. But historical evidence as presented by figures such as Deirdre McCloskey as well as more contemporary empirical data analysis by figures such as David Dollar on whether economic growth is good for the poor, simply fails to penetrate Pogge's understanding of the economic record and leads to the opposite judgement than the one he has. Can he please look at what has happened to those living under $2 per day over the past 20 years because of the opening up previously closed economies to the global market economy?!
His empirical understanding fuels an outrage of the injustice that the current world distribution of income represents. The passion over poverty is intriguing, but the intellectual blindness to basic economic reasoning is frustrating. Witness this interview with him where he compares those supporting the current international economic system and thus standing by as the world's poor suffer as the equivalent position to the German's who remained silent during the Nazi ottrocities against the Jewish people. (HT: Michael Wiebe) He could have a point, if as with Easterly's work he saw how experts from afar often undermine democratic reforms and systems in the countries that the foreign aid is supposed to help. But that is not what he is stressing. Pogge believes horrific poverty is a crime against humanity committed by the capitalist economic system.
When my PhD students inevitably come to their final defense I often ask 2 very vague and broad questions of them just to make sure they are on their toes: (1) what was the biggest surprise you had in your research for your dissertation?, and (2) what argument or evidence would have persuaded you to the opposite of your present position? They better have had some surprises, otherwise we wouldn't call it research (btw, pleasant surprises are still surprises!). And they better know what would have pushed them off this position otherwise they are merely engaged in lawerly rhetoric at best and confirmation bias at worst.
I wonder how Thomas Pogge would answer those questions if asked concerning his work on capitalism, justice and the plight of the poor.