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"Ought presupposes can."


And that's all I have to say about that.

Yes Master Chief, that was a nice argument of yours.

While I never read Rawls, I have read that Rawlsian notion of social welfare was that the welfare of society is given by the welfare of it's member that is worse off than everybody else.

This notion is based, I guess, on the concept that individuals would be infinitely risk averse and would have a randomized income on society's income distribution. In other words, that they would have a certain probability of being born with the endowments of anyone in a given society. With infinite risk aversion, therefore, only the endowment of the worst off individual of society would be relevant.

As I see it, the main problem with this approach is that when applied to policy, they apply it in respect to a country, as if a society is an individual country. If one takes a world view on this matter, any individual is therefore risk averse in respect to his expected income in relation to the world's income distribution. Therefore, it doesn't matter how equal a country of 5 million people is. It won't affect the welfare of the world. It doesn't matter if Norway doesn't have any family living on less than 30k, since there are hundreds of millions of families in Africa living with less than 3k.

This criticism also applies to any of these risk averse theories of social welfare: the income distribution of a single country is always insignificant compared to the world.

Professor Beotke,

you are correct because Rawls' argument would become implausible once his economic assumptions about how society works are shown to be wrong. For example, if we show (I think this would not be too hard to do) that his 'difference principle' is satisfied not under welfare state as he thinks, but under the "system of natural liberty" he opposes, then the entire rationale for redistribution crumbles. If redistribution does not elevate the economic condition of the worst-off group (i.e. there is at least one alternative institutional arrangement, namely the system of natural liberty under which the worst-off group ends up with more than in any other system), why is it then "just" to redistribute? It is not, even if we accept on a philosophical level Rawls' "difference principle" (I do not, but that is not relevant for the argument).

What I miss this about a Boettke class. Here is a research topic: Go!

From our point of view economics is prior. But this is because we take for granted that rules of the game are an economic question. Actors can't allocate resources without rules which generate predictable action the part of other individuals. Economics, in the predictive (reactive) part, suggests that people behave in a way that comports well with their own self interest (private and public choice). This gives us a historical and descriptive task: to better understand how individuals view their own interest.

The rules are the issue both Rawls and Buchanan favored studying. By incorporating the creative (non-reactive) element of action we allow space important questions about comparative systems. Both authors set them self up with the task of establishing a link between moral claims (desirable means like justice and individual freedom) and ultimate welfare results. The results expected by each author from their means are what we focus on when reading their answer to the question.

On the other hand, how do the normative commitments of each author express themselves? Is there in fact a different commitment implicit when someone approaches the topic from a philosophical point of view vs. that of an economist? If there are differences in outcome which follow the choice of method, can we argue that economics is rightly considered prior to philosophy?

Rawls assumes that people behind the veil of ignorance are endowed with a knowledge of the achievements of science.

This would include knowledge of Mises socialist calculation argument -- i.e. his proof of the impossibility of socialism, and the necessity of private property and a price system

But Rawls wants this domain of issues to be an open question.

I've pointed this fact out to many philosophers.

As a matter of personal taste and prefererence, they hated even of being made aware of the point.

Rawls made it clear to me in personal converstation that he didn't have a taste for Mises.

You are right on point, Peter.

More devistating is this.

Rawls acknowledges late in _ATofJ_ that his whole program depends on the sense of justice -- the whole thing.

Hume and Hayek show us that the sense of justice is something that evolves, and is something within the domain of scientific knowledge -- something that would be known about behind the veil of ignorance.

We would know about the importance of the sense of justice, and how it figures in the evolution of social institutions and traditions even in the initial condition.

And this knowledge would conflict with Rawls' preferred outcomes.

Again, professional philosphers hate being made aware of these points -- it ruins the game upon which their iron rice bowl depends.

More specifically, the sense of justice is shaped by the economic institutions and redistributive institutions, and these grow in part organically.

Yet Rawls' whole project depends on a stable and evolved sense of justice -- rich economics as devoloped by Hume, Hayek and others gives us a sense of the process which gives us an evolved sense of justice -- and those processes are incompatible scientifically with many redistibutive and institutional schemes. And this is scientific knowledge that people would have in the initial position behind the vail of ignorance.

Greg, I've got a passage on this from my defunct liberaltarian book that you might enjoy. I may post it at my blog.

Pete, you might be interested in this piece from Steven Landsburg -- he also uses this in his book "Fair Play". Unfortunately, I couldn't find the source of the calculations he mentions.


Mises did a great deal to argue for the material benefits that accrue to the least advantaged from private ownership, free enterprise and free trade. In light of those arguments, we can say in Rawls's defense that this set of rules uniquely satisfies Rawls's Second Principle. The kinds of exceptions Rawls calls for are (in general) not necessarily any more invasive than those for which Hayek also makes apology, such as social safety nets.

Rawls himself actually depends on folk economics. The results are, well, what Rawls came up with.

There's also the issue of time...

Are Rawlsians saying that at some particular time it's most ethical to maximize the happiness of the most unfortunate? Or are they saying something about the future too?

I don't think it can be argued that the future doesn't matter, or that what happens in the present has no effect on it.

"And I think a proper accounting of Rawls' economics, and the theoretical and empirical critique of it, pushes us beyond the "liberaltarian" type arguments that became popular among some libertarians."

This follows only if liberaltarians exclusively use Rawls' economics in their arguments. However the liberaltarian you link to makes it quite clear that his influences lie with economically more respected thinkers. One can build a liberaltarian case on Buchanan and Hayek that does not have the same problems.

Page 26 and following in this document establishes some information about Rawl's development of economic insights from Frank Knight.


All this Rawls stuff is interesting, but your other class afterward was problematic. You spent half the class talking about governments in the Soviet Union and other kleptocracies trying to establish credible commitment strategies for political liberalization, in order to stimulate investment. But I'm a practical kind of guy and only care about stuff we can use here and now. I mean, it's not as though the US economy is suffering from a lack of investment and business expansion, or that this could have anything to do with the administration's policies, or that the administration is trying to get the business community to trust it . . .

Virtually everyone here, starting with Pete, is ganging up on Rawls for disagreeing with them about economics. But his theory of justice in no way depends on his views about economics. The theory simply says that a just society works to the benefit of the least advantaged. If you think laissez-faire capitalism works to the benefit of the least advantaged, then you are saying that laissez-faire capitalism is the society that best meets Rawlsian criteria. There is no reason to oppose Rawlsianism just because you disagree with what Rawls, the man, thought about economics.

I can't speak for everyone or even Pete, but I'm not disagreeing with that Jeff. I think the point of the "implicit economics" is to suggest precisely what you say - what sort of institutions best meet Rawlsian justice may depend on one's economic theory and how one therefore interprets economic history and current data. Rawls the man might be wrong because of his understanding of economics but that doesn't necessarily undermine the Rawlsian perspective.

I think the question involving: "...to the benefit of the least advantaged." Is a different question than what you get when you start from other visions. It is hard for me to imagine that Ricardo was concerned about the least advantaged. Malthus seemed to want the least advantaged to no be born in the first place, preventative check rather than positive check.

It seems that economics asks a slightly different question, not incompatible, but distinct from Rawls. Economists who say that Rawls fails on his own criteria are reaching out to a wider audience. When I think of economists I think of descriptions of choice without assumptions about collective preferences. When I think of Rawls, I think of empirical claims concerning particular systems of collective preferences.

Steve, you and I agree that it doesn't matter what Rawls the man thought about economics. But as Pete points out, what Rawls thought about economics was explicit, not implicit.

What I object to is the idea that within Rawls's theory of justice itself, there is *any* "implicit economics." There isn't. So disagreeing with what Rawls the man explicitly thought about economics is in no way "devastating to his enterprise," i.e., the theory of justice.


Yes and no.

Rawls wants his theory to be practical in terms of the institutionalization of the principles of justice. But just consider for the moment that Rawls' "hope" as I quote him, is wrong, and thus his argument might end up generating contradictions with respect to his concern with self-respect, coordination, efficiency, etc.

I think the bottom line is you cannot do moral theory without doing economics. The Schmidtz and Gaus agenda of non-ideal moral theory seems to be getting at the same point but via a different route.


Pete, to quote my favorite professor in college, when he was asked whether he believed in the Constitution: "Believe in it? Hell--I've seen it!"

Certainly you can do political theory without doing economics. Hell--Rawls did it!

And he did a pretty fine job.

It's just that that's not all you have to do if you want to eventually reach institutional or policy conclusions. There, yes, you need economics, and I'd add political science, psychology, sociology, history, and anthropology.

But there's nothing wrong with Rawls's theory in itself merely because it doesn't include economics. There is a division of academic labor, after all.

de ce nu:)

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