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First published in , A Theory of Justice was revised in , while translated editions were being released in the s it was further revised in In A Theory of Justice, Rawls argues for a principled reconciliation of liberty and equality that is meant to apply to the basic structure of a well-ordered society.


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Principles of justice are sought to guide the conduct of the parties. These parties are recognized to face moderate scarcity, and they are neither naturally altruistic nor purely egoistic. They have ends which they seek to advance, but prefer to advance them through cooperation with others on mutually acceptable terms.

Rawls offers a model of a fair choice situation the original position with its veil of ignorance within which parties would hypothetically choose mutually acceptable principles of justice. Under such constraints, Rawls believes that parties would find his favoured principles of justice to be especially attractive, winning out over varied alternatives, including utilitarian and 'right wing'-libertarian accounts. Rawls belongs to the social contract tradition, although he takes a different view from that of previous thinkers.

Specifically, Rawls develops what he claims are principles of justice through the use of an artificial device he calls the Original position ; in which, everyone decides principles of justice from behind a veil of ignorance. This "veil" is one that essentially blinds people to all facts about themselves so they cannot tailor principles to their own advantage:.

According to Rawls, ignorance of these details about oneself will lead to principles that are fair to all. If an individual does not know how he will end up in his own conceived society, he is likely not going to privilege any one class of people, but rather develop a scheme of justice that treats all fairly.

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In particular, Rawls claims that those in the Original Position would all adopt a maximin strategy which would maximize the prospects of the least well-off. Rawls bases his Original Position on a "thin theory of the good" which he says "explains the rationality underlying choice of principles in the Original Position". A full theory of the good follows after we derive principles from the original position. Rawls claims that the parties in the original position would adopt two such principles, which would then govern the assignment of rights and duties and regulate the distribution of social and economic advantages across society.

The difference principle permits inequalities in the distribution of goods only if those inequalities benefit the worst-off members of society. Rawls believes that this principle would be a rational choice for the representatives in the original position for the following reason: Each member of society has an equal claim on their society's goods.

Natural attributes should not affect this claim, so the basic right of any individual, before further considerations are taken into account, must be to an equal share in material wealth.


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  • What, then, could justify unequal distribution? Rawls argues that inequality is acceptable only if it is to the advantage of those who are worst-off. The agreement that stems from the original position is both hypothetical and ahistorical. It is hypothetical in the sense that the principles to be derived are what the parties would, under certain legitimating conditions, agree to, not what they have agreed to.

    Rawls seeks to use an argument that the principles of justice are what would be agreed upon if people were in the hypothetical situation of the original position and that those principles have moral weight as a result of that. It is ahistorical in the sense that it is not supposed that the agreement has ever been, or indeed could ever have been, derived in the real world outside of carefully limited experimental exercises. Rawls modifies and develops the principles of justice throughout his book.

    In chapter forty-six, Rawls makes his final clarification on the two principles of justice:.

    Equality and Justice: A Normative Perspective

    The first principle is often called the greatest equal liberty principle. Part a of the second principle is referred to as the difference principle while part b is referred to as the equal opportunity principle. Rawls orders the principles of justice lexically, as follows: 1 , 2 b , 2 a. The first principle must be satisfied before 2 b , and 2 b must be satisfied before 2 a.

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    Justice : alternative political perspectives

    The same is true in the exercise of economic liberties such as the right to use and dispose of private property and the right to negotiate contracts so long as third-party rights are not violated. The failure to understand the difference between having a right and exercising it has led to the fallacy of thinking that the state can legislate a right to equal opportunity—in the sense of equal starting conditions—without violating the right to noninterference.

    Yet, the incentive is for politicians to legislate free lunches, even though in a world of scarcity it is impossible to equalize material conditions without taking from those who produce income and wealth and redistributing it to those who do not. Thus, while it is possible for all individuals to have the right to private property and freedom of contract, it is patently absurd to think that all individuals can exercise that right without violating the very freedom the initial right conveys.

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    In sum, extending the right of equal opportunity—in the sense of equal freedom and equal justice under a rule of law—to everyone as a natural right entails no opportunity cost in terms of forgoing other legitimate rights and liberties. However, once equal opportunity is enlarged to mean equal endowments, the state necessarily moves from protecting property rights to redistributing them. A principled approach to equality requires an understanding of the higher-law background of the Constitution, wherein the Constitution is viewed as a charter of freedom.

    In taking a constitutional perspective of equality and order, the focus is on the underlying rules necessary for coordinating individual interests so as to resolve conflicts in a socially and economically harmonious way with a minimum of government interference in the private domain. A constitutional perspective, therefore, encompasses both the problem of moral legitimacy and the problem of efficiency—that is, it deals with the ethical problem of determining the legitimacy of the rules underlying markets and government as well as the practical problem of determining how well the chosen rules operate to bring about a spontaneous social and economic order.

    It is only within a system of limited government safeguarding private property and freedom of contract that those two aspects of the constitutional perspective reinforce each other as justifications for a free society. When addressing the question of how rule changes affect individual incentives and behavior, the constitutional perspective accepts the public choice view that individuals are self-interested in all aspects of their behavior involving scarce resources.

    The upshot of the self-interest postulate is not that individuals cannot be public spirited, but rather that each individual seeks to undertake those actions he expects will render him a net benefit—whether operating in the private or public sector.

    Neo-libertarianism

    But the tradeoffs among those goods will depend on the relative prices confronting the individual and, therefore, on the property rights structure. Thus, the constitutional perspective is also a property rights perspective of individual action as it affects social and economic order. Changes in the property rights structure—the rewards an individual can capture for various actions and the costs he must bear—will affect his choices.

    The lower the relative price of any action, the greater will be the incentive to take it other things being equal.

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    This law of rational choice is as applicable to individuals within government as it is to those in the private sector. A constitution, viewed as a set of rules empowering government and constraining individual action, is an important determinant of the penalty-reward system and, hence, of individual action. A constitution affording broad protection to economic and noneconomic liberties, understood in the natural rights tradition, will ensure justice in terms of equal protection under the law. It also will yield an economic and social order in which individuals are responsible for their actions and have an incentive to utilize information that will bring about mutually beneficial exchanges, enhancing both private and social wealth.

    In pursuing their self-interest, therefore, individuals will tend to bring about a spontaneous economic order in which resources are directed in line with consumer sovereignty. It is in this regard that Madison saw the judiciary as the final arbiter and guardian of the Constitution. He considered a strong federal judiciary to be an essential element in protecting individual rights and for establishing a sound constitutional order based on the classical concept of commutative justice.

    Strip it of that armour, and the door is wide open for nullification, anarchy, and convulsion. Supreme Court has largely fulfilled its protective function with respect to First Amendment rights, it has failed to provide equal protection for economic liberties, thereby leaving the door open for nullification of the economic constitution by the political branches. In sum, a constitutional perspective of equality reveals that within a system of rules safeguarding property in its larger Madisonian sense , freedom will flourish, and self-interest will operate to promote a spontaneous economic and social order.

    If industry and labor are left to take their own course, they will generally be directed to those objects which are the most productive, and this in a more certain and direct manner than the wisdom of the most enlightened Legislature could point out…. All are benefited by exchange, and the less this exchange is cramped by Government, the greater are the proportions of benefit to each [in Padover —70]. Majoritarianism and special interests will then undermine individual rights and give rise to a redistributive state.

    The principle of spontaneous order and the importance of rules of just conduct in bringing about social and economic order are often disregarded. Instead of seeing the connection between constitutional order and socioeconomic order, policymakers tend to think in terms of placing better people in command of static institutions.

    Rather than changing the rules of the game in order to change incentives and behavior in line with constitutional principles and the free-market process, policymakers tend to ignore the constitutional perspective and focus on short-run solutions. It is often heard that self-interest applies only in the economic regime, not in the political regime. That presumption, however, has been seriously challenged by public choice theory and the reality of government failure.

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    According to Buchanan 10—11 ,. The constitutional perspective … emerges naturally from the politics-as-exchange paradigm or research program. To improve politics, it is necessary to improve or reform the rules, the framework within which the game of politics is played. Calls for radical measures to achieve greater equality of income and wealth by Piketty and others, if realized, would vastly increase the power of government, violate private property rights, dampen market incentives, and increase rent seeking.

    In contrast, under a just rule of law and limited government, markets would be insulated from redistributive government programs, and rent seeking would be replaced by profit seeking and wealth creation. A judiciary that is active in striking down legislation that violates rights to private property and freedom of contract would change expectations and limit rent seeking.

    The economic and political regimes would then cooperate to produce economic and social harmony. Much progress was made in achieving a greater security of property rights up through the early part of the 20th century. The demise of the constitutional perspective has been fueled by a Supreme Court that has largely abandoned its duty of protecting economic rights, especially private property and freedom of contract.

    Contemporary Supreme Court policy largely ignores this understanding with respect to the last item of this trilogy. That may be true as a matter of practice but not principle. Today, many critics of the existing social and economic order operate in an institutional vacuum, ignoring the potential for abuse under majority rule and harboring the illusion that a mere changing of the guard—without any effective change in constitutional rules and enforcement—will improve the operating characteristics of democratic government.

    This is not to deny that people make a difference. Rather, it is to warn that without changes at the constitutional level—in the effective set of rules constraining individual behavior—there is little reason to believe that any significant changes in either public or private behavior will occur. Property rights matter. As McKean pointed out,. In appraising special tools to increase efficiency, one should examine what happens to property rights and appropriability in order to form realistic expectations about the effects.

    Also, in trying to invent improved devices or institutional changes, or in launching new programs, we should keep the impacts on rights and opportunity sets in the forefront of our minds, and not just assume that good intentions pave the road to economic efficiency. Social or distributive justice is nowhere mentioned in the Constitution, and its implementation by forced transfers cannot be sanctioned as a legitimate function of the state when viewed from the higher-law background of the Constitution.

    Indeed, as Hayek , vol. Thus, the Framers rejected the quest for distributive justice as a legitimate function of a free and just government, leaving that goal largely to voluntary charity and the private domain. To take them in a literal and unlimited sense would be a metamorphosis of the Constitution into a character which there is a host of proofs was not contemplated by its creators….

    In doing so, however, they reverse the order of importance the Framers placed on individual rights by giving priority to democratic values. As such, the priority of the higher law of the Constitution has given way to moral relativism if not skepticism and legal positivism. By inverting rights and values, proponents of the redistributive state have lost the moral high ground they claim to occupy. True beneficence is outside the scope of legislation and cannot be compelled by law without destroying the voluntary choice that is the essence of moral action.