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3.: Democratic Values - Anthony de Jasay, The State 
The State (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998).
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Liberalism and Democracy
Divisive policies which democratic competition forces the adversary state to adopt are promoted by the liberal ideology as contributing to universally agreed values.
Democracy is not the good life by another name.1
It may help in grasping some of the essential features of the liberal ideology and of the practice of the adversary state, to reflect briefly on democracy as a procedure and as a state of affairs (presumably the result of adopting the procedure). When looking at the rationale of submission to the state, I argued that political hedonism involved the acceptance of coercion as the counterpart of a benefit conferred by the state. The functioning of the state facilitated self-preservation according to Hobbes, or the attainment of a broader range of ends, according to Rousseau; the realization of these ends required cooperative solutions which (or so went the contractarian contention) could not come about without non-cooperation being deterred. The most basic role of the state was to transform non-cooperation from an irresistible option (in game-theory language, a “dominant strategy” which the player must adopt if he is rational) into a prohibitive one. It could perform this role in diverse ways, depending on how it combined the three ingredients which make up the obedience-inducing compound of statecraft, namely repression, consent and legitimacy.
The expectations of the hedonist could conceivably be fulfilled even by a state pursuing its ends while securing the compliance of civil society by repression alone. Provided his ends were limited in scope and modest in extent, and those of the state did not directly compete with them (for instance, if the political hedonist wanted protection from muggers and the state wanted national greatness), both ends could be simultaneously furthered by stern government.2 Nor would the capitalist state necessarily require consent for carrying out its unambitious programme, i.e. to impose upon society the cooperative solution of respect for life and property, to keep out “non-minimal,” “non-capitalist” rivals and to pursue such meta-political ends as it may fancy; while if it did heavily rely on consent, it is doubtful whether it could confine itself to as modest objectives as these.
The legitimate state, admitting that time and its own good conduct and good luck did earn it this rare status, could bring about cooperative solutions to a possibly wide range of otherwise unattainable ends over and above the preservation of life and property. It could do so by simply asking its subjects to behave accordingly. However, the more it asked, the more it would use and strain its legitimacy. Even if its own ends were perfectly non-competing with those of its subjects—an obviously hard condition to fulfil—such a state would still have to consider the scope of any social contract as limited (if indeed it saw its services to society in contractual terms). Such cooperative solutions as it was prepared to ask for would, therefore, be confined within narrow bounds.
Political obedience resulting predominantly from consent, on the contrary, not only allows the social contract (or its Marxist equivalent, the transfer, by a class, of power to the state in exchange for the latter repressing another class), to be virtually open-ended in scope, but actually thrives on its ceaseless enlargement. The reason is that a state which needs its subjects’ consent to its tenure of power, is by virtue of its non-repressive nature exposed to the actual or potential competition of rivals who solicit the withdrawal of consent from it and its award to themselves. To secure its tenure, the state cannot confine itself to the imposition of cooperative solutions where there were none before, since its rivals, if they know their business, will offer to do the same and something more in addition.
Having done or agreed to do all the things that make some people better off and nobody worse off (which is how cooperative solutions are usually regarded), the state must go on and make some people even better off by making others worse off. It must engage in the wide range of policies apt to win over classes or strata, interest groups, orders and corporations, all of which involve, in the last analysis, interpersonal balancing. Specifically, it must give or credibly promise benefits to some by taking from others, for there are no benefits left which do not “cost” anybody anything.3 In this way, it must obtain a favourable balance between consent gained and consent lost (which may or may not be the same as the balance between the consent of the gainers and that of the losers). This balancing of political advantage is factually indistinguishable from the balancing of interpersonal utility or justice or both, which is supposed to underlay the maximization of social welfare or distributive justice.
I propose to call “democratic values” the preferences subjects reveal in responding to interpersonal balancing by the state. These are likings for ends which can only be realized at another party’s expense. If the other party is an unwilling loser the attainment of such ends typically requires the threat of coercion. They are realized in the course of the imposition of a particular kind of equality in place of another kind, or in place of an inequality. These imposed equalities can be thought of as primarily political or primarily economic. Though the distinction between the two is often spurious, it is always confidently made. Gladstone’s England or the France of the Third Republic is, for instance, regularly berated for having achieved political without economic equality. Conversely, sympathetic critics of the Soviet Union, Cuba or other socialist states believe that they have progressed towards economic equality to the neglect of political equality.
A step is made toward the maximization of democratic values when the state reduces its capacity for repression and increases its reliance on consent; when it leans less heavily on the consent of the powerful and clever possessors of clout and more heavily on sheer numbers, for example by broadening the franchise and making the ballot really, safely secret; and when it redistributes wealth or income from the few to the many. Now do not these examples, which stretch across the breadth and length of “political and economic” democracy, show that it is quite redundant to talk of “democratic values”? It is the usual and sensible convention to regard everybody as preferring more power to less (at least the power to resist others, i.e. self-determination, if not the power to dominate others) and more money to less. If a move gives more power to many and less to a few, or more money to many and less to but a few, more will like than dislike the move. That is all there is to it. What is the point of baptizing the simple consequence of an axiom of rationality a “liking for democratic values”? The objection would have to be upheld, and democracy would be seen as a mere euphemism for “the conditions under which the self-interest of the majority overrides that of the minority” or words to that effect, were it not for the possibility of people valuing arrangements which do not serve their self-interest (altruism) or, what may well be more important, valuing arrangements in the mistaken belief that they do. The latter may be due as much to honest ignorance of the unforeseen or unintended effects of an arrangement (Do egalitarian policies really give more money to the poor after all or most effects on capital accumulation, economic growth, employment and so on, have been counted? Do the masses determine their own fate with one-man-one vote?) as to dishonest manipulation, political “marketing” and demagogy. Whichever source it springs from, Marxists would quite reasonably label it “false consciousness,” the adoption of an ideology by someone whose rational self-interest would in fact be served by a different one. A preference for democratic values, divorced from his self-interest, is the mark of many a liberal intellectual.4
Democracy, whatever else it may be, is one possible procedure a set of people, a demos, can adopt for “choosing” among non-unanimously preferred collective alternatives. The most spectacular and portentous of these choices is the award of tenure of state power. How this award is made to a contender or to coalitions of contenders, and indeed whether it can in all circumstances be made and rendered effective at all, depends on the direct or representative features of the democracy in question, on the interrelation of the legislative and executive functions, and more generally on custom. These dependences are important and interesting, but not central to my argument, and I intend to leave them on one side. All democratic procedure obeys two basic rules: (a) that all those admitted to the making of the choice (all members of a given demos) have an equal voice, and (b) that the majority of voices prevails over the minority. Defined in this way, members of the central committee of the ruling party in most socialist states constitute a demos deciding matters reserved for it in conformity with democratic procedure, each member’s vote weighing as much as every other’s. This does not prevent inner-party democracy from being, effectively, the rule of the general secretary, or of the two or three kingmakers in the general secretariat and the political bureau, or of two clans or two patron-and-client groups allied against the rest, or any other combination political science and gossip can think of. More extensive forms of democracy can include in the demos all party members, or all heads of households, all adult citizens and so on, the acid test of democracy being not who is in and who is not, but that all who are in are equally so.
This can have paradoxical consequences. It makes multiple, “weighted” voting undemocratic while letting pass Athenian democracy, or that of the typical Renaissance city-state where all adult male citizens had the vote but up to nine-tenths of the residents were non-citizens. It virtually guarantees the bypassing, underhand “fixing” or overt breach of democratic rules by calling for the same weight to be given to the voice of Cosimo de’ Medici as to that of any other Florentine citizen of the “little people,” the same importance to the general secretary as to any cock-on-the-dungheap oblast chief. These reflections are not to be read as a complaint that democracy is not democratic enough (and ought somehow to be made more so), but as a reminder that a rule flying in the face of the facts of life is liable to get bent and to produce perverse and phoney results (though this is not sufficient reason for discarding it). Perhaps there is no conceivable rule which does not violate some important fact of life to some extent. But a rule which seeks to make anyone’s vote on any matter equal to anybody else’s is a prima facie provocation of reality in complex, differentiated communities, let alone entire societies.5
The other basic rule of democratic procedure, i.e. majority rule within a given demos, also has more and less extensive applications. The most extensive is widely considered to be the most democratic. Applied this way, majority rule means that the barest plurality, and in two-way Yes/No splits the barest majority, gets its way on any issue. Constitutional restrictions upon majority rule, notably the exemption of certain issues from the scope of choice, the barring of certain decisions and the subjection of others to qualified instead of simple majority rule, violate the sovereignty of the people and have clearly to be judged undemocratic unless one were to hold that the state, being incompletely controlled by the people, ought to have its sovereignty restricted precisely in order to enable democratic rules (or what is left of them after constitutional restrictions) to operate without fear.
I shall have occasion briefly to come back to the fascinating problem of constitutions in chapter 4 (pp. 206-14). In the meantime, suffice it to note that the logical limiting case of majority rule is where 50 per cent of a demos can impose their will on the other 50 per cent on any matter, it being a toss-up which 50 per cent does the imposing. (This is equivalent to Professor Baumol’s suggested most-democratic criterion of maximizing the blocking minority.)6
Though it is not one of its essential rules, democracy is for sound practical reasons also identified in the public mind with the secret ballot. Admittedly, some democratic modes of operation like coalition-forming and log-rolling are hampered by secrecy. Trades of the “I vote with you today if you will vote with me tomorrow” kind run up against a problem of enforcing performance if the vote is secret. The same non-enforceability would frustrate the purpose of the direct buying of votes if the sellers sold in bad faith and did not vote as they had agreed to. By far the most important effect of the secret ballot, however, is in reducing or removing altogether the risks the voter runs by voting against the eventual winner who gains power and is enabled to punish him for it.7
Where does this leave democracy seen as the result of collective decisions rather than as a particular way of reaching them? There is no “rather than,” no meaningful distinction if we simply agree to call democracy the state of affairs, whatever it turns out to be, that results from the democratic procedure (along the lines of regarding as justice whatever results from a just procedure). But the democratic rules are not such that, provided only they are applied, reasonable men would be bound to agree that what they produce is democracy. Many reasonable men, in fact, consider the German Nazi electoral victory of 1933 as anti-democratic, although it resulted from reasonable observance of the democratic procedure.
Whether it is a democratic result for the majority to invest with power a totalitarian state whose avowed intention is to suppress competition for power, hence voiding majority rule, voting and all other democratic ingredients, is a question which has no very obvious answer. Like the right of the free man to sell himself into slavery, the majority’s democratic choice to abolish democracy should be judged in its causal context, in terms of the feasible alternatives and the motives of the choice rather than just in terms of its anti-democratic consequences, grave as the latter may be. Whichever way the judgement may fall, even if in the end it were to find it democratic to choose totalitarianism, it is clear that its dependence on a factual context precludes the “democratic because democratically arrived at” type of simple identification-by-origin.
If a state of affairs resulting from the application of recognized democratic rules is not necessarily democracy, what is? One answer, implicit in much of twentieth-century political discourse, is that “democratic” is simply a term of approbation without any very hard specific content. Democracy becomes the good life. If there can be two views about what constitutes the good life, there can be two views, too, about what is democratic. Only in a culturally very homogeneous society is it possible for the state and its rivals for power to share the same conception of democracy. If a contender for power believes that his gaining power is conducive to the good life, he will tend to regard political arrangements which favour his accession as democratic, and those which hinder him or favour the incumbent as anti-democratic. The converse holds for the tenant of state power.
Failure to understand this leads people to brand as cynical any resort to a practice that is condemned as anti-democratic when employed by a rival. A nearly perfect instance of this is the tight state control and ideological Gleichschaltung of French radio and television since 1958 or so, indignantly attacked by the left before 1981 and by the right since. There is no reason to suppose that either is being cynical in regarding control by the other as anti-democratic, since control by oneself is for the better and control by the others is for the worse, and there is nothing insincere in arguing from this basis.
It follows also from the conception of democracy as the good life, the desired state of affairs, that it may be necessary and justified to violate democratic rules in the interest of the democratic result. Only Marxist-Leninists go all the way in following this logical implication. Once in power, distrustful of the short-sightedness and false consciousness of the voter, they prefer to make sure in advance that elections will have a really democratic outcome. However, in non-socialist countries where the means of making sure are not in hand or are not employed, and elections take place more or less according to the classical democratic rules, the loser often considers that the result was rendered undemocratic by some undue, inequitable, unfair factor, e.g. the hostility of the mass media, the mendacity of the winner, the lavishness of his finances, etc. The sum of such complaints amounts to a demand for amending and supplementing the democratic rules (e.g. by controlling the mass media, equalizing campaign finances, forbidding lies) till finally they yield the right result, which is the sole test that they have become sufficiently democratic.
Neither as a particular procedure, nor as the political good life—the arrangement we approve—is democracy sufficiently defined. If we would narrow down a little the use of the term, this is not because we grudge the equal rights of Outer Mongolia, Ghana, the USA, Honduras, the Central African Republic and Czechoslovakia to call themselves democracies. It is rather because the attempt at formulating a tighter conception should illuminate some interesting relationships between democratic values, the state that produces them and the liberal ideology. These three elements could, for instance, be loosely linked thus: democracy is a political arrangement under which the state produces democratic values, and the liberal ideology equates this process with the attainment of ultimate, universal ends.
As defined above, democratic values are produced by the state as a result of interpersonal calculus; for instance, it will democratize the franchise or the distribution of property, if and to the extent that it expects to reap a net gain of support from such a move. But it would have engaged in the same policies if, instead of rational self-interest, it had been motivated by a liking for equality. Empirically, then, there is no test for telling apart the enlightened absolutism of the Emperor Joseph II and of Charles III of Spain from the populism of Juan Perón or of Clement Attlee; they were all, on the face of it, producing democratic values. We have good reasons for thinking, though, that the former two, relying for their power hardly at all on popular support, did not have to do what they did, and chose it out of a liking, a political conviction. Causality, then, runs from the monarch’s preferences to the political arrangement and its democratic features. On the other hand, we might strongly presume that whether or not a Peron or an Attlee had egalitarian convictions and a desire to raise the working man (and they both had both), the exigencies of consent for their accession to and tenure of power would have obliged them anyway to pursue the sort of policies they did. If so, we would suppose causality to be running round a circuit composed of the state’s liking for power, its need for consent, the rational self-interest of its subjects, satisfaction for the gainers at the expense of the losers, and the justification of this process in terms of uncontested, final values by the liberal ideology—the whole interdependent set of factors taking the form of a political arrangement with democratic features.
The two types of causation, one operating in enlightened absolutism and the other in democracy, can be told apart in an a priori sense by having either one, as it were, act in a “society of equals,” where all subjects (except, where applicable, the praetorian guard) are equal at least in such respects as political influence, talent and money. The enlightened absolute monarch, liking equality, and seeing his subjects equal, would be broadly content with political arrangements as they are. The democratic state, however, would be competing with rivals for popular consent. A rival could attempt to divide society into a majority and a minority by finding some dimension like creed, colour, occupation or whatever, with respect to which they were unequal; he could then bid for the support of the majority by offering to sacrifice to them some interest of the minority, e.g. its money. Since everybody has equal political influence (one-man-one-vote, simple majority rule), if everybody followed his self-interest, the democratic incumbent would lose power to a democratic rival unless he, too, proposed inegalitarian policies and offered to transfer, for instance, more of the minority’s money to the majority.8 (The equilibrium conditions of this competitive bidding are sketched in chapter 4, pp. 219-25.) In a society of equals, then, democracy would act in the opposite sense to the levelling we associate with it; using some convenient criterion for separating some subjects from others, it would have to carve out a majority and sacrifice the minority to it, the end-effect being some new inequality. This inequality would then function as a democratic value approved by the majority. If democracy ever created a “society of equals,” it is possibly along such lines that it might then develop further, calling for an ideological adjustment which does not look unduly difficult.
In the last such historical adjustment, which began roughly when the present century did, and which replaced government as night-watchman by government as social engineer, the ideology of the advancing state has changed in almost everything but the name. Owing to the breathtaking transformation which the meaning of “liberal” has undergone in the last three generations, the original sense of the word is irretrievably lost. It is no use any more shouting “Stop, thief!” at those who stole it. Speaking of “classical” liberalism or trying to resuscitate the original meaning in some other form would be a bit like saying “hot” both when we mean hot and when we mean cold. My use of the term “capitalist” is, in fact, intended to avoid such misleading usage and to stand in for at least the hard core of the original sense of “liberal.”
Hoping that this might help thin out some of the prevailing semantic fog, I will employ “liberal” as the modern shorthand symbol for political doctrines whose effect is to subordinate individual good to the common good (leaving no inviolable right) and to entrust its realization to the state ruling mainly by consent.9 The common good consists for the most part of democratic values, which are whatever the exigencies of consent require. In addition, however, the common good also calls for the fulfilment of an evolving variety of further goals for which there is, at any given time, no majority support. Present-day examples of such goals include racial desegregation, abolition of the death penalty, banishment of nuclear energy, affirmative action, homosexual emancipation, aid to underdeveloped countries, etc. These goals are deemed progressive, i.e. expected to become democratic values in the future.10 Liberal doctrine holds that civil society is capable of controlling the state and that the latter is therefore necessarily a benign institution, the observance of democratic procedure sufficing to confine it to the subordinate role of carrying out society’s mandate which, in turn, is some kind of sum of society’s preferences.
Given this nature of the state, there is a certain unease in liberal doctrine about freedom as immunity, a condition which can negate the priority of the common good. Where immunity is conspicuously a privilege not shared by all, as it patently was in most of Western Europe up to at least the middle of the eighteenth century, liberalism opposes it. Its remedy is as a rule not to extend privilege as much as possible if that is not sufficient to create equality, but to abolish it as far as possible. Tawney, a most influential developer of the liberal ideology, waxes eloquent on this point:
[Freedom] is not only compatible with conditions in which all men are fellow-servants, but finds in such conditions its most perfect expression.11
What it excludes is a society where only some are servants while others are masters.12
Like property with which in the past it has been closely connected, liberty becomes in such circumstances the privilege of a class, not the possession of a nation.13
That freedom is most perfect when all are servants (more perfect even than if all were masters) reflects the presumption in favour of levelling down. It is not the condition of servitude which contradicts freedom, but the existence of masters. If there are no masters yet there are servants, they must be serving the state. When servitude is to the state, freedom is at its apogee; it is better that none should have property than that only some should have it. Equality and freedom are, albeit a shade obscurely, synonymous. We could hardly have come farther from the idea of the two being competing ends.
Even if it were not yet one more dimension of people’s existence, like money or luck or breeding, in which equality can be violated, freedom as immunity would still have to be opposed by the liberal. Even when we all have it, the immunity of some curtails the state’s ability to help others and consequently its production of democratic values; even equal freedom-as-immunity is inimical to the common good.14
This is strikingly manifest in the way liberal thought looks upon property. Private property, capital as the source of countervailing power, reinforcing the structure of civil society versus the state, used to be considered valuable both to those who owned some and to those who did not. Liberal thought no longer recognizes such value. It considers that democratic procedure is the source of unlimited sovereignty. It can rightfully modify or override title to property. Choices between private and public use of private incomes, as well as between private and public property in the narrower sense, can and in fact ought to be made and subjected to continuous review in pursuit of such aspects of the common good as democratic values or efficiency.
These criteria must primarily govern the scope and manner of state interference with private contracts in general. For instance, a “prices and incomes policy” is good, and ought to be adopted regardless of the violation of private agreements it entails, if it helps against inflation without impairing allocative efficiency. If it does impair it, it ought still to be adopted, in conjunction with a supplementary measure to rectify the impairment. Liberal thought is rarely at a loss for additional measures to complete the first one, nor for policies to take care of any unintended effects the latter may produce, and so on in an apparently infinite regress, in hopeful pursuit of the original aim. (Arguably, a measure taken today is the nth echo of some earlier measure in that the need for it, in that particular shape and form, could not have arisen without the preceding measure(s); and as the echo shows no signs of dying down, n has a fair chance of growing into a very large number.) The fact that a measure brings a cascade of consequential measures in its train is a challenge to imaginative government, not an argument against it. The fact that imaginative government needs to override property rights and the freedom of contract is neither an argument against it nor for it, any more than the breaking of eggs is an argument for or against the omelette.
This exploration of some sensitive tenets of liberal doctrine may invite a parallel analysis of socialism. The reader, who incidentally would have no difficulty in doing this for himself, is likely to note a few vital points of incompatibility between the two, despite the large extent of surface resemblance which has long nourished the facile and ambiguous thesis of the “convergence of the two world systems.” The crucial incompatibility, in my view, lies in their treatment of power and hence of property. The liberal is relatively relaxed about power. He trusts the majority to direct the state in society’s best interest, which is tantamount to trusting it to award social power more often than not to him, to his friends, to the party of liberal inspiration. Consequently, while he may interfere with private property for a number of reasons, he will not do so out of a perceived need to weaken civil society’s ability to take state power away from an incumbent.
For the socialist, however, power is a cause for deep anxiety. He sees majority rule as a licence for the rule of false consciousness, involving an unacceptable risk of relapse into reaction, due to the defeat of progressive forces by the ballots of a mindless electorate. He must have public ownership of the commanding heights of the economy (and as much as possible of the slopes and the plains, too) for public ownership (both in itself and as the corollary of no significant private ownership) is the best guarantee of the security of tenure of power. Private ownership loosens the state’s control over the livelihood both of the capitalist and of the worker (in the widest sense) whom he may choose to employ. It is thus an enabling cause of opposition by both. The socialist state, less trusting than the liberally inspired one and more knowledgeable about power, thus feels a far more vital concern about property, even though its view about the relative efficacies of planning, the price mechanism, allocation or incentives may be no different from that of most non-socialist states.
The surface compatibility of liberal and socialist doctrines, however, is such that discourse in terms of one can inadvertently get caught up in the strands of the other. The ensuing cross-breeding of ideas can produce startling progeny. One area where ideological miscegenation is apt to happen is the concept of liberty, its refractoriness to definition and its nature as an ultimate, self-evident good. Not for nothing does Acton warn us to be wary: “But what do people mean who proclaim that liberty is the palm, and the prize, and the crown, seeing that it is an idea of which there are two hundred definitions, and that this wealth of interpretation has caused more bloodshed than anything, except theology?”15 Any political doctrine must, in order to look complete, incorporate liberty among its ultimate ends in some fashion. The rules of ordinary speech guarantee that it is a solid value: it sounds as absurd to say “I dislike liberty, I want to be unfree” as to assert that good is bad.16 Moreover, one is safe to feel dispensed of any obligation to derive the goodness of liberty from some other value, to which liberty may lead as a means leads to an end, and which may turn out to be contestable. Happiness (freely translated as “utility”) and justice are on the same footing. It is impossible to say “I am against justice,” “there is a lot to be said for unfairness” and “utility is useless.” Such ultimate, uncontested ends can be made to play a particular role in validating other ends that an ideology seeks to promote.
Equality is the prime practical example. The problem of inserting it in the value system is that it is not self-evidently good. The statement “there is a good deal to be said for inequality” may provoke vigorous disagreement; it may require backup argument; it is in any case not nonsensical. Ordinary speech tells us that it is possible to contest the value of equality. If we could see that it is derived, by a chain of propositions we accept, from the value of another end which we do not contest, we would not contest equality either. Utility and justice have alternatively been employed in elaborate attempts to establish equality as an uncontested end in this way. The next three sections of this chapter are intended to show that these attempts, like the squaring of the circle, are futile; equality can be made into a valuable end if we explicitly agree to put value on it, but it is not valuable by virtue of our liking for something else.
I know of no systematic argument trying to derive the goodness of equality from our liking for liberty in the way attempts have been made to derive it from utility or justice, perhaps because the very idea of liberty lends itself poorly to rigorous argument. On the other hand, it positively invites the muddling up of pieces from incompatible ideologies, whose result is some strange proposition like “freedom is equal servitude” or “freedom is enough food.” Such conceptual miscegenation, by coupling equality to freedom, gives it a piggyback ride. Carried on the back of liberty, it is smuggled in among our agreed political ends.
This is the drift of thinking of liberty (as Dewey would have us do) as “the power to do”: as material sufficiency, food, money; as an empty box unless filled with “economic democracy”; as some fundamental condition not to be confused with the “bourgeois” or “classical” liberties of speech, assembly and election, all of which are totally beside the point to the “really” (economically) unfree. (It is surely possible to interpret history as “proving” the contrary. Why else did the English Chartists agitate for electoral reform rather than higher wages? By the same token, one can plausibly present the formation of workers’ councils, the call for a multi-party system and free elections in Hungary in 1956, and of the wildfire spread of a nationwide autonomous trade union in Poland in 1980, as demands for the classical bourgeois freedoms by the “economically” unfree. In fact, the opposite interpretation looks grossly implausible. We cannot seriously be asked to believe that it was the happy accomplishment of “economic liberation” that has engendered the demand for bourgeois freedoms in these societies.)
It is to show up the deceptive ease with which equality rides piggyback on freedom past the most watchful eyes, that I choose a text by the usually so lucid Sir Karl Popper, who is as prominent a critic of totalitarianism as he is a distinguished logician:
Those who possess a surplus of food can force those who are starving into a “freely” accepted servitude.
A minority which is economically strong may in this way exploit the majority of those who are economically weak.
If we wish freedom to be safeguarded, then we must demand that the policy of unlimited economic freedom be replaced by the planned economic intervention of the state.17
The use of the word “force” is, of course, poetic licence. What Popper is saying is that those with a surplus of food just sit back and do not volunteer to share it with those who are starving; to eat, the latter must come forward and offer to work for them. Since they cannot “really” choose to starve, their offer to work is an acceptance of servitude. It is “free” but not “really” free choice. Note also that it is the minority who do this to the majority, which makes their conduct somehow even more reprehensible than if it were the other way round. Our democratically conditioned consciences have thus one more reason to approve the “planned economic intervention of the state,” though it is a little bewildering that in defence of the Open Society, we are proffered the Gosplan.
Poetic licence or not, the multiple confusion which finally gives us the Gosplan as a condition of freedom, needs sorting out. First, Popper asserts that there is an analogy between the strong bully enslaving the weaker man by the threat of force, and the rich exploiting the economic weakness of the poor.18 But there is no such analogy. There is a plain distinction between taking away a man’s freedom (by threatening to beat him up) and not sharing our “freedom” (= food) with a man who lacks it in the first place.
Second, there is confusion between the availability of choice (between servitude and starving) which is a matter of liberty,19 and the equity, fairness, justice of a situation where some people have a lot of food and others none, which is a matter of equality. Third, confusion is spread by leaving unstated a number of assumptions which are needed to stop this situation from ending up as a normal neo-classical labour market equilibrium, where those owning a lot of food compete to hire those who own none and who compete to get hired, until hirers and hired are all earning their respective marginal (value) products.
The assumptions under which the outcome is starving or servitude are quite strong ones, though they may have some realism in particular kinds of societies. In such societies, the minority’s offer of food in exchange for the majority’s servitude is at least “Pareto-superior” to letting them starve while redistribution through “planned intervention of the state” would have generally unpredictable results, one likely possibility being that much of the food goes bad in government warehouses.
Finally, although freedom is not food, and liberty is not equality, equality may yet help justice, or be otherwise desirable, but this does not go without saying. Before anyone can state that the coexistence of a minority with a surplus of food and of a starving majority ought to be redressed, he has to show, either that greater equality in this respect would contribute to other ends in such a way that self-interest will make rational people opt for the equality in question, or that people’s sense of justice, symmetry, order or reason demands it to the exclusion of contrary considerations. The endeavour to show this constitutes much of the ideological Begleitmusik of the development of the modern state.
To sum up and to restate some of the preceding argument: The democratic state is unable to content itself with providing benefits to its subjects that may make some better off and none worse off. In democracy, tenure of state power requires consent, revocably awarded to one of several competitors by an agreed procedure. Competition involves offers of alternative policies, each of which promises to make designated people in society better off. These policies can be produced only at the cost of making other people worse off. In an unequal society, they tend to be egalitarian (and in a society of equals they should tend to be inegalitarian), to attract a majority. The majority’s “preference” for one of the policies on offer “reveals” that its proximate effects represent the greatest accrual of democratic values. People may opt for it whether or not their interests are served thereby. The dominant ideology, liberalism, coincides with the interest of the democratic state and predisposes people under its influence to like democratic values. It calls upon the state to do for ethical reasons what it would have to do anyway to maintain its tenure. It tells people that the policy agreed to by the majority contributes to ultimate ends they all share. It also promotes additional policies, showing that they are conducive to the same ends and recommending that people opt for them when they are offered. In doing so, it both promotes and responds to the growth of the state.
Through Equality to Utility
The rule “to maximize society’s utility, equalize incomes” gains validity once incomes have been equal for long enough.
No man has more than one stomach, but this is a thin basis for holding that the more equally all goods are shared, the better.
It is part of our intellectual heritage that whatever else it may do which we hold for or against it, equalization of incomes will maximize their utility. The intuitive support which helps this proposition over the more obvious obstacles is that an extra dollar must mean more to the poor man than to the rich. On reflection, all that intuition really strongly supports is that a given absolute sum increases the poor man’s utility relatively more (say, ten-fold) than that of the rich (say, by a tenth). Nothing in these “cardinal” comparisons of the poor man’s initial utility with its increase, and the rich man’s initial utility with its increase, enables us to compare the two utilities, or the two increases, between them either “ordinally” (in terms of bigger or smaller) or “cardinally” (by how much bigger).
One view of this problem (with which, as chapter 2 has shown, I can’t help but concur) is that we cannot do this because conceptually it just cannot be done, because interpersonal comparisons are intrinsically misdirected enterprises. If they are undertaken, all they can possibly be known to express is the preferences of whoever is making the comparison, and that is the end of the matter. Pursuing it beyond this point can take us into the analysis of these preferences. We will then be dealing with questions of ideology, sympathy, compassion, party politics, raison d’état and so forth. These or other elements can perhaps explain why the comparison fell out the way it did. They will not shed any further light on the utilities purported to have been compared.
However, the contrary view seems also to be tenable. It must be, if only because it is held by some of the most incisive minds who have addressed this problem. Thus, Little feels able to make “rough-and-ready,” and Sen “partial,” interpersonal comparisons of utility. The positive case, as distinct from the normative one, for giving some of the rich man’s money to the poor man is that the same money, differently distributed, has more utility. Unless it is granted, for argument’s sake, that such comparisons make sense, there is no factual case to prove, only moral judgements to be set one against the other and, as Bentham ruefully put it, “all practical reasoning is at an end.”
Yet the intellectual tradition of discovering in equality an enabling cause of greater utility, is a positive one. Central to it is a conviction that we are dealing with matters of fact and not of sympathy. Some such conviction, albeit unconsciously and implicitly, conditions an important strand of the liberal argument about the distribution of the national income and optimum taxation.20 It seems to me worthwhile to meet it on that ground, as if utilities could be compared and added up to social utility, and as if it was social science which told us that one distribution of income was superior to another.
Let me recapitulate—“retrieve from the political subconscious” would be a truer description—the reasoning behind this conviction. It goes back at least to Edgeworth and Pigou (the former taking a more general, and also more cautious, view) and provides a robust example of the capacity of a dated theory to inspire practical contemporary thought with undiminished vigour.
At bottom the theory rests on a basic convention of economics which gives rise to fruitful theories in various branches of it, labelled the Law of Variable Proportions. The convention consists in assuming that if different combinations of two goods or factors yield the same utility (in consumption) or output (in production), the increments of utility or output obtained from combining increasing quantities of the one with a constant quantity of the other, are a decreasing function of the variable, i.e. each increase in its quantity will yield a smaller increment of utility or output than the preceding one. In theories of consumers’ behaviour, this is also described as the “principle of diminishing marginal utility,” “the convexity of indifference curves” or “the falling marginal rate of substitution” of the fixed for the variable good.
Now if a person is given more and more tea while his other goods do not increase, the utility, satisfaction or happiness he derives from successive doses of tea diminishes. The intuitive support for presuming this resides in the fixity of his bundle of other goods. (“Presumption” is employed advisedly. A hypothesis framed in terms of utility or satisfaction must be a presumption, as it cannot be disproved by experiment or observation unless the context is one of uncertain alternatives, see below.) The same presumption stands for any single good when all the other goods stay fixed. However, it cannot be aggregated. What is presumably true of any single good is not even presumably true of the sum of goods, i.e. income. As income increases, all goods potentially or actually increase. What, then, is the relevance of “knowing” that the marginal utility of each good falls if the quantity of the others remains fixed? The diminishing marginal utility of tea conditions the mind to acceptance of the diminishing marginal utility of income, but the temptation to argue from one to the other is a trap.
A presumption can be established for the falling marginal utility of income by defining income as all goods except one (which stays fixed when income rises), e.g. leisure. It is possible to suppose that the more income we have, the less leisure we would give up to earn additional income. However, if the falling marginal utility of income is a consequence of excluding one good from income, then it cannot be applied to a concept of income which excludes no good. If any good can be exchanged at some price against any other including leisure, which is by and large the case in market economies, income is potentially any and all goods, and none can be supposed fixed to give rise to falling marginal utility for the sum of the rest.
It is well established that the realm of certainties—where we are sure to get a pound of tea if only we ask for it and pay the shopkeeper the price—does not lend itself to observation of the marginal utility of income. Meaningful observation of the rate of change of utility as income changes, however, is conceptually possible in the face of risky choices. The pioneer study of lotteries and insurance, as evidence relevant to the shape of the utility function, strongly suggested that the marginal utility of income may be falling in certain income brackets and rising in others, consistent with a hypothesis that changes of income which leave a man in his class have, in a sense, a lesser value than changes giving access to a quite different kind of life: “[a man] may jump at an actuarially fair gamble that offers him a small chance of lifting him out of the class of unskilled workers and into the ’middle’ or ’upper’ class, even though it is far more likely than the preceding gamble to make him one of the least prosperous unskilled workers.”21 We must note (and mentally carry forward to the next two sections of this chapter) that this is the precise obverse of the type of valuation of income which is supposed to induce rational people to adopt a “maximin” defence of their interest in Rawls’s Theory of Justice.22
Now anyone who carelessly reasons as if there could be a means, independent of the observation of choices involving risk, for ascertaining the marginal utility of income, is apt to say that some positive or negative utility may attach to the taking of risks, so that what risky choices measure is the marginal utility of income plus/minus the utility of being at risk, of gambling. Whether we would like it to mean more, or less, to say that there is positive utility in exposure to risk means to say that the marginal utility of income is rising. That a person is adverse to risk (declines fair gambles or is willing to bear the cost of hedging), is no more, and no less, than evidence in support of the hypothesis that the marginal utility of his income is falling. No other proof, over and above the evidence drawn from risky choices, can be produced for it. People’s answers to hypothetical questions about how much “utility” or “importance” they attach to successive tranches of their actual (or prospective) income, are not admissible evidence.23 It is baffling to be told that the observable evidence (risk-avoidance, or risk-taking) somehow adds to or subtracts from the inferred condition (the falling or rising “marginal utility of income”) of which it is the sole symptom and whose existence it alone affirms.
There is no “law” of the diminishing marginal utility of income. Educational and career choices, financial and other futures markets,24 insurance and gambling provide abundant evidence that all shapes of utility functions may occur, falling, constant or rising; that one and the same person’s marginal utility may change direction over different ranges of income, and that there is no obvious predominance of one type of function, the others being freaks. Not surprisingly, no theory of utility maximization by promoting a particular distribution of income could be built on so general and shapeless foundations.
The Edgeworth-Pigou theory in fact stands on a better basis than this, though this goes often unrecognized in bowdlerized accounts. Satisfaction derived from income in the properly stated, full theory depends on income itself and on the capacity for satisfaction. Its dependence on income alone does not really yield the standard conclusion usually associated with the theory; if all goods vary with income, the marginal utility of income need not be falling and we cannot say anything much about what an egalitarian redistribution of incomes would do to “total utility.” Its dependence on the capacity for satisfaction, on the contrary, looks like leading to the desired result. As income rises in the face of a fixed capacity for satisfaction, the makings of a law of diminishing returns are all there, with intuitive support provided by the concept of satiety. If we have, then, two forces acting on the marginal utility of income and the effect of the first can go either way without any obvious bias, while the second makes marginal utility diminish, the tendency for a falling marginal utility of income could be taken as established in a probabilistic sense.
The remaining pieces fall easily into place. Only goods which can be brought into relation with the “measuring rod of money” are taken into account. People have the same tastes and pay the same prices for the same goods, hence spend a given money income the same way. For purposes of “practical reasoning,” they have the same “appetites,” “intensity of wants,” “capacity for enjoyment” or “temperament,” as the capacity for satisfaction has been interchangeably called. Inherent in the concept of capacity was the idea that it could get filled up. Successive units of income would yield successively smaller increments of utility or satisfaction as the ceiling of capacity was getting closer. Given the total income of society, total utility must obviously be the greater the more nearly equal is the marginal utility of everybody’s income, for the total can always be augmented by transferring income from people having a lower marginal utility to people having a higher one. Once marginal utilities are equal all round, no further utilitarian good can be done by income transfers; total “social” utility has been maximized. Utility, satisfaction are intangibles, attributes of the mind. The visible evidence of the all-round equality of marginal utilities is that there are no rich and no poor any more.
This evidence is persuasive if we admit the requisite meaning of interpersonal comparisons (which I have decided to do for purposes of argument, to see where it gets us) and if we interpret the capacity for satisfaction (as it used to be interpreted) as physical appetite for standard goods, or as “the lower order of wants” which are the same for rich and poor, for “nobody can eat more than three meals a day,” “no man has more than one stomach,” etc. When, however, the capacity for satisfaction is not, or no longer, viewed in the early textbook sense of a few basic physical needs, all bets are off.25 Though it came straight from the horse’s mouth, opinion-makers and utility-maximizers never took enough notice of Edgeworth’s warning: “The Benthamite argument that equality of means tends to maximum happiness, presupposes a certain equality of natures; but if the capacity for happiness of different classes is different, the argument leads not to equal, but to unequal distribution.”26
With the admission that capacities for deriving satisfaction from income may well be widely different, what is left of the injunction to take money, say, from rich fat white men and give it to poor thin brown men? Equality ceases to be the direct command of rationality, for it can no longer be identified as the road to maximum utility. Admittedly, redistributive policies could be based on differential patterns of the capacity for satisfaction while rejecting elusive utility as the end to be maximized. In the well-known example of the manic-depressive cripple, utility-maximization would call for taking money away from him since he does not get much satisfaction out of it. An alternative maximand might require throwing a million dollars at him, because it would take that much to raise his satisfaction to the level of that of the average sane and healthy person. The latter policy has the equalization of happiness (and not its maximization) as its end. It makes sense if (in order to rise to the rank of an end) equality need not be derived from the good, but is postulated to be the good.
Under the utility-maximizing tradition, two possible positions seem to remain open. One is to posit that the capacity for satisfaction is a random endowment like the ear for music or the photographic memory, and there is no sensible way to reason about where in a population it is most likely to be concentrated. If so, there is also no sensible way to judge which distribution of income is most likely to maximize utility.
The other position is to assume that although the capacity for satisfaction is not spread evenly, it is not distributed randomly either, but forms patterns which can be inferred from people’s other, statistically visible characteristics, e.g. it is concentrated in the under-eighteens, in the old, in those having and in those not having an academic education, etc. Discerning the pattern restores the utilitarian rationale of recommendations to distribute society’s income one way rather than another. Happily, scope is thus found again for social engineers to devise redistributive policies which increase total utility and political support for the proponent of the policy, though the coincidence of the two is probably less assured than it would be in the straightforward and classic case of rich-to-poor redistribution.
Is it not, however, reasonable to act on the assumption that the young, with their appetite for leisure, clothes and travel, music and parties have more capacity for satisfaction than the old with their weaker lusts and saturated wants? A policy of making tax rates progressive not only with income, as at present, but also with age, might be a good one both for social utility and for getting the youth vote. By the same token, since the old, with their mature culture and greater experience, are cet. par. likely to have a greater capacity for satisfaction, tax rates declining with age could both increase utility and earn the senior citizen vote. There may also be a case, on plausible grounds, for increasing the income of teachers and decreasing that of plumbers as well as for proceeding the other way round.
Moreover, it stands to reason that the intensity of wants is liable to increase with exposure to temptation, so that total utility could probably be enhanced by subsidizing, for example, readers of Sears Roebuck catalogues. On the other hand, since their enhanced capacity for satisfaction is to some extent its own reward, it would also be a good idea to tax the subsidy and distribute the proceeds among non-readers of advertisements. On balance, benefits in terms of welfare and political consent could perhaps be drawn from adopting all of these policies at the same time or in turn, although careful sample surveys would be required to make the underlying social engineering really precise.
This of course is just being unkind to the kind of earnest and well-meaning officiousness which the majority of politically aware people used to indulge in until quite recently and which some, for a variety of reasons, still practise. It deserves being made fun of. However, more serious reasoning remains to be done.
The rule “to each in proportion to his wants” as a sufficient condition of utility maximization, does not simply translate into the equalization of incomes. People’s wants run to many things money can buy over and above bread and dripping, beer and pizza. It is preposterous to interpret their capacity for satisfaction in the physical sense of one man, one stomach. They are much too different for the levelling of their incomes to represent a plausible approximation to solving any maximum problem. Is there any other simple redistributive policy which would look more plausible?
Waiting in the utilitarian wings for this stage of the play are such notions as “learning by doing,” “l’appétit vient en mangeant,” “tastes depend on consumption” or, perhaps, “the utility of income is an increasing function of past income.” They strain the conventional limits of economics, just as the notion that preferences for political arrangements are heavily conditioned by the very arrangements that actually prevail (cf. pp. 18-19), strains those of political theory. The usual and time-tested approach of these disciplines is to take tastes, preferences as given. Treating them as part of the problem may, nevertheless, be worth an occasional attempt.
Rather than assuming, too implausibly, that capacities for satisfaction are given and are much the same all round, let us therefore assume that they are conditioned by people’s actual satisfactions, their culture, experience and habitual standards of living which taught them to cut their coat to their cloth, to adjust their wants and to feel relatively comfortable with the things that go with that standard. The greater have been people’s incomes for some learning period, the greater will have become their capacity to derive satisfaction from them, and vice versa, though it might be wise to suppose that in the reverse direction, the learning period needed to reduce the capacity for satisfaction is much longer.
If interpersonal comparisons were “on,” the impartial spectator might find that there was little to choose between the happiness gained by giving a dollar to the representative underprivileged man and the happiness lost by taking a dollar from the representative well-to-do one (before counting the happiness the one loses by being coerced and the other gains by feeling the state’s helping hand under his elbow, and the impartial spectator, to do his job properly, must count these gains and losses, too). Barring the new poor and the new rich, at the end of the day there is probably no utilitarian case left for tampering with the incomes people actually have. If any policy conclusion can be supported by abstract reasoning of this sort, it may well be that the existing distribution of income, if it has prevailed for some time, is more likely than any other to maximize total utility (and if such issue to the argument disgusted people sufficiently to make them stop thinking, however unconsciously, about how to maximize social utility, the quality of political debate would no doubt improve).
Stated otherwise, if income distribution were a means to a society’s greater or lesser aggregate satisfaction, the least harmful policy rule to adopt would be that every society “ought” to get the income distribution to which its members are geared by past experience. An egalitarian society, the sort Tocqueville resignedly expected to issue from democracy, where people’s natures are similar, their tastes and thoughts conform to agreed norms and their economic status is uniform, “ought” in all probability to be given an egalitarian income distribution—except that it has already got it.
Levelling in a society which was inegalitarian to begin with would quite probably violate the utility-maximization criterion which it was supposed to serve. This is not, in itself, a very good argument against levelling unless one were to take social utility maximization seriously, and despite its great influence on the public subconscious, there is no really strong case for doing so. Whether for or against, arguments about the merits of levelling seem to me to need some other basis. Democratic values cannot be derived, as it were, from the rational man’s guide to utility; equality is not rendered valuable by virtue of its purported contribution to the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Whether the democratic values are contained in the rational man’s guide to social justice, is the question to be addressed next.
How Justice Overrides Contracts
If rational people wish the state to override their bilateral contracts, they must be arguing from equality to justice rather than the other way round.
A “scheme of social cooperation” need not be bought twice, first with rewards for burdens, second with a social contract to redistribute the rewards.
Let us revert to the idea of a society where individuals have title to their property and to their personal endowments (capacity for effort, talents) and are free to sell or hire them out on voluntarily agreed terms. Production and distribution in such a society will be simultaneously determined, in the proximate sense, by title and contract, while its political arrangements will be at least closely constrained (though not wholly determined) by the freedom of contract. Only the capitalist state, with the meta-political ends we attribute to it to keep it in its place, can be comfortable within such constraints. The adversary state, whose ends compete with those of its subjects and which relies on consent to gain and keep power, must proceed by breaking them down. In the limiting case, it may substantially abolish title to property and the freedom of contract. The systematic manifestation of this limit is state capitalism.
Short of this, the state will override people’s bilateral contracts in the name of a social contract. The policies effecting this will, as far as the coincidence is feasible, serve the state’s own ends and help realize democratic values. Broadening the franchise and redistributing income are two typical policies of this sort, though others, too, may achieve a degree of the desirable coincidence. At all events, such policies will in general be capable of being interpreted as maximizing social utility or justice or both, and since these maximands are recognized as ultimate ends (requiring no justification or supporting argument in terms of other ends), the policies will claim to be rational for society as a whole.
The interpretation of a policy as ipso facto a maximizing one is a tautology if it depends on the underlying interpersonal comparisons having been favourable to it; for such an assertion is by its nature incontrovertible. By contrast, when it takes the risk of being more than a tautology and invokes conformity to some substantive rule (which cannot be twisted and “interpreted,” but can be seen to be either observed, or breached) like “to maximize utility, equalize incomes,” “to maximize justice, override contracts in favour of the least advantaged,” “to maximize liberty, give everyone the vote” or more cautiously phrased variations on such themes, the claim that the corresponding policies are rational stands or falls with the theory that yielded the rule.
Moved by such considerations, I shall now attempt to try out some implications of one democratic theory that was elaborated over the 1950s and 1960s by John Rawls and finally set out in his Theory of Justice. My choice is dictated, among other reasons by its being, to my knowledge, the only fully fledged theory within the liberal ideology of the state as the prime instrument of the justice of rewards and burdens.27The state receives an irrevocable mandate from the parties to the social contract, and hence has unlimited sovereignty, to give effect to the principles of justice.
One way of characterizing Rawls’s concept of justice and approaching his conception of it (for the distinction, see his p. 5) is to suppose that at the end of any particular day people have become parties to all the feasible contracts they would like to enter into. Some will then sit up and reflect as follows:28
So far, I have done as well as circumstances allowed. Others more fortunately situated have done better, though those less fortunate have done worse. Tomorrow, circumstances will have changed and I might do better or worse with new contracts. Some of my old contracts may work out nicely, but others might not look too good under changed conditions. Would it not be “rational to insure (myself) and (my) descendants against these contingencies of the market”? (p. 277, my emphasis). I would then have an “out” for each time I thought that my contracts were not treating me right.
As a matter of fact, I do think so now, for I feel disadvantaged by having less property and personal endowments than some others. I should like to see institutions of justice which would ensure that when my contracts provide me with “rewards and burdens, rights and duties” which I consider less than fair, they should be adjusted in my favour. It is true, come to think of it, that every one of my contracts has another party to it, and if a contract is overridden in my favour, it is overridden in his disfavour. Now why should he agree to a “background institution” which deals with his contracts in this way just when they are the fairest to him and he is happiest about them? Would I agree to it in his place? I would need some inducement, and surely so does he; I am quite happy to offer him something and I hope we can work something out, because without his consent, which must remain binding forever, the background institution I covet will not click into place.
This looks a candid paraphrase of that part of Rawls’s theory which ought to lead to his “contract situation,” i.e. to cause the parties in the state of nature (who are assumed to be self-interested, non-altruistic and non-envious) to solicit each other to negotiate a social contract, a sort of omnilateral super-contract ranking above and, in case of conflict, overriding bilateral contracts.29 Even before starting to wonder about what might be the next step, the substantive content (“the principles of justice”) of the social contract, it is pertinent to ask how to create a “contract situation” if someone, whether or not fortunately situated, declines to see the point of negotiating at all? Can this not happen? Can he not argue, (a) that he is doing all right as it is, and will not try to do better under a social contract at the risk of having to accept to do worse? and (b) that the moral position to take about the justice of social arrangements (of which the division of labour is one) is for everybody to keep his word, whether or not it would be to his advantage to go back on it?
Argument (b), for all its Old Testament flavour, is at least consistent with Rawls’s requirement that people must have a sense of justice (p. 148). The two arguments (a) and (b) seem to me to provide a quite Rawlsian rationale for prudently staying put and refusing any negotiation which would, in exchange for advantages or inducements to be defined, release others from their contractual commitments. The alternative is the state of nature, with “finders are keepers” in place of the “principles of justice.” At this stage, we cannot infer from anything that one is juster than the other, for the sole criterion of the justice of principles on offer is that, given the appropriate conditions, they would be unanimously chosen. However, appropriate conditions will not evolve through voluntary cooperation, and therefore people will not all wish to negotiate a social contract, if some have rational cause for abstaining.
Rawls’s key assertion, that “willing social cooperation” yields a net advantage, might perhaps prevent the theory from stopping short in this way. The advantage must manifest itself in an increment of society’s index of “primary goods” (provided no one makes a fuss about problems of aggregating such “primary goods” as authority, power and self-respect) for no other advantage would be recognized under Rawls’s theory of the good. Unless reflected in an increase in primary goods, there are no such advantages as “greater social harmony” or “no class hatreds.” This increment could presumably be distributed so that nobody was worse off and some were better off than under the distribution that is mutually agreed as plain, de facto cooperation unfolds.
Let us, therefore, revert to the ambition of a person B who wants to induce another person A to negotiate a social contract with power to override bilateral contracts. Under the latter, A and B (like everyone else) are already engaged in a scheme of social cooperation, producing a volume of primary goods and sharing them according to what Rawls calls a “natural distribution” (p. 102). Each scheme of cooperation is predicated on a distribution, meaning that the resulting volume of primary goods must be wholly distributed to call forth the sort of cooperation in question. The natural distribution corresponds to de facto social cooperation.
Might not, however, another distribution call forth not merely de facto, but also willing social cooperation, of a sort that would yield an increment of primary goods, compared to the de facto one? This can, perhaps, be expected “if reasonable terms are proposed,” on which “those better endowed, or more fortunate in their social position, neither of which we [sic] can be said to deserve, could expect the willing cooperation of others” (p. 15). Now if B wants to create a “contract situation,” he must convince A that if he were assured more reasonable terms than he is, or is liable to be, getting in the natural distribution, he would cooperate more willingly; his greater cooperation would yield an increment to pay for his “more reasonable” (in the sense of more favourable) terms; and there would be a little something left over for A, too. But can he really deliver the required increment?
If he is not bluffing, i.e. if he is both capable and prepared to deliver it, and if the special terms he demands for doing so do not cost others more than this increment, he would already be producing it and he would already be getting the special terms under ordinary, bilateral contracts, for straightforward reasons of market efficiency. He would already by cooperating more willingly for better terms. That he is not, and his contracts do not already incorporate such better terms, is proof that the social contract, interpreted as redistribution in exchange for greater social cooperation, cannot be the unanimous preference of rational persons already cooperating and having agreed to a natural distribution.
Whether those better endowed deserve it or not is, in Rawls’s system of choice criteria, irrelevant. The “advantages of social cooperation” are looking very much like something of which everybody is already getting as much as he chooses to pay for. They are insufficient bait to lure him away from the mutually agreed natural distribution and into the social “contract situation.” The extra quantity of primary goods that greater social cooperation with its attendant just-distributional requirements, is claimed to yield, can only be forthcoming by redistributing more than the extra quantity obtained (so that at least some must lose).
What are we to make of Rawls’s contrary assertion that “representative men do not gain at one another’s expense... since only reciprocal advantages are allowed” (p. 104)? In a reasonably functioning market, prevailing terms reflect all the reciprocal advantages that can be got. How, by acting on what parameter, does the social contract, with its terms which “draw forth willing cooperation,” alter this? If Rawls means the assertion to be one about facts, it is either wrong or unverifiable. (It is the latter if it depends on the purported distinction between willing cooperation and de facto cooperation being what we wish it to be; for instance, willing cooperation would mean a dream world of doubled productivity, no strikes, no inflation, pride in workmanship, no alienation and no command-obedience relation, while de facto cooperation is the poor, shoddy, muddled, unproductive, futile and alienated world we know.) If, on the other hand, it is to be an arbitrary frontier of the area within which the argument is applicable, the theory shrinks to total insignificance.
Still less can the theory get going on the strength of the mere desire of some people to persuade others effectively to let them out of this unattractive situation, though it is the best they could have chosen, and concede more attractive terms under an overriding super-contract. Whichever way we turn it, it is impossible for everybody both to have and not to have conflicting interests, to choose a set of contracts and unanimously to prefer another.
Why, however, should we accept the (historically quite unsupported) postulate that the yield (in primary goods) of social cooperation increases as better-than-market terms are offered to the less-advantaged? Why do the better-endowed have to propose “satisfactory terms,” in the form of redistribution topping up the rewards afforded by the market, seeing that they are already getting all the cooperation which “terms” can advantageously buy them?30
And if special, better-than-market terms have to be offered by someone to somebody else to draw forth his “willing” cooperation—which seems totally unsubstantiated—why is it the better-endowed who must do the offering? Nozick took a machine-gun to shoot this sitting duck to shreds, showing that if there is any argument about this, it must be symmetrical and cut both ways.31 Maybe, if cooperation, or its degree or extent, is in doubt or jeopardy for some unexplained reason, it is the worse-endowed who would have to offer special terms to get the better-endowed to go on cooperating with them (for, as the bitter joke goes, the one thing worse than being exploited is not being exploited at all).
Rawls’s book provides no answer why new terms should be necessary or, which seems to amount to the same thing, why rational non-altruists would all accept, let alone seek to negotiate about, distributive justice. It does have a curious answer to why, if overriding terms are necessary, it is the rich who will concede them to the poor rather than the other way round or in some other, more sophisticated and complex redistributional patterns: “Since it is impossible to maximize with respect to more than one point of view, it is natural, given the ethos of a democratic society, to single out the least advantaged” (p. 319, my italics). The principles of justice, then, are what they are because society is democratic, rather than society being democratic because it has been found just for it to be such. The democratic ethos comes first and the requirements of justice are deduced from it.
Here, moral philosophy is standing on its head and first principles come last.32 Principles for designing a state which will make rewards and burdens different from what they would otherwise be, must necessarily be in the relative favour of somebody. Whom should they favour? Rawls singles out the least advantaged. This might have been a random choice, but as we now know, it was not; it was derived from democracy. Making the state take the side of the least advantaged has the great convenience that the consent-dependent state is by and large inclined to do it anyway for reasons inherent in competition for getting and keeping power. The imperatives of the “democratic ethos” which make it “natural” to bias distribution one way rather than the other, are prima facie a code word for the exigencies of majority rule. If not, they must express a belief that there is some (democratic) value anterior or superior to justice (for if there were not, it could not give rise to a principle of justice).
One suspects, having got this far, that some notion of equality might be this value; we could in that case argue from equality and recommend a distribution as more just than another because it favoured the least favoured, without having to demonstrate that favouring the least favoured is just (which would be an argument for equality rather than from it).
The irony of it all is that had Rawls not tried and failed to prove in the doing, that a theory of distributive justice is possible, it would be much easier to go on believing the universalist claim for democratic values, i.e. (in essence) that equality is valuable because it is the means to the undisputed final ends of justice or utility or perhaps liberty, too, and hence it is rational to choose it. Rawls had made it easier for non-democrats to cry that the Emperor has no clothes.
In the basic, “justice as fairness” version of his theory, Rawls (to my mind successfully) showed that rational self-interested people would concede special terms to each other to regulate the permissible inequalities of burdens and rewards if the only available alternative on offer were their equality. It is self-evident that under his key “difference principle” (inequalities must benefit the least advantaged or else they must go) the corresponding unequal distribution, if there is one, is better for everybody. If it makes the worst-off better off than they would be under equality, it must a fortiori make the best-off even better off, as well as everybody in between. (If the facts of life, production functions or elasticities of supply of effort or whatever, are such that this is in practice not possible, inequalities fail to get justified and the principle commands the distribution to revert to equal.) In an egalitarian distribution, an egalitarian distribution tempered by the difference principle will be regarded as “just,” i.e. chosen.
Taking equality as the base case (Rawls also calls it the “initial arrangement” and it is the “appropriate status quo” from which his theory can get going)—the natural presumption—and departures from it as requiring the Paretian justification of unanimous preference,33 is in unison with arguing from democracy to justice. That no one seems to protest that here the cart is before the horse, simply shows that Rawls is, at least on this point, quite at one with the evolving liberal ideology. (The critics who, declaring for liberalism or socialism, attack Rawls’s ideological content, so to speak, “from the left,” accusing him of being a Gladstonian relic, a disciple of the despised Herbert Spencer and an apologist of inequality, seem to me to have well and truly missed the point.)
But no majority vote can settle questions of justice. In the spirit of the liberal ideology, which considers people’s rewards as subject to political review purportedly guided by some ultimate value, a change in distribution which favours someone at the expense of somebody else raises a question of justice. Answers can be sought by intuitionist or utilitarian arguments. (The latter, as I have contended in chapter 2, pp. 110-1, are really intuitionist ones at one remove.)
Intuitionist arguments are irrefutable and do not rise above the rank of affirmations. Rawls could have put forward his principles as deductions from the given end of equality qualified by Pareto-optimality. Equality (its ultimate goodness) would then have the status of an intuitionist value-affirmation, while Pareto-optimality would tautologically follow from (non-envious) rationality. However, in his ambition to square the circle, Rawls appears to want to deduce “the standards whereby the distributive aspects of society are to be assessed” entirely from rationality (p. 9). His justice must consist of “principles that free and rational persons concerned to further their own interests would accept in an initial position of equality” (p. 11). What the “initial position,” the “appropriate status quo” needed to get the theory going really amounts to is this: Rawls, in the formal core of the argument, takes out equality as an end and puts it back in as the rule imposed for playing the rational decision game.
He is plainly entitled to fix any rule he likes, but he cannot oblige rational people (or any other, for that matter) to join in the game and accept its outcome forever, unless they already share his commitment to the article of faith that unequal endowments of property and talent must not be allowed to shape a distribution if it is not to be unjust. Agreement on the justice of a certain principle of distribution will be the consequence of this shared commitment. Despite appearances, and the insistence that it is an application of decision theory, the argument is still dependent on the intuitionist affirmation (however disguised) that equality is prior and can give rise to justice. The “appropriate status quo” is the moment when the rabbit is safely in the hat, ready to be pulled out.
Unlike any other status quo, it is one where there is no social cooperation at all to start with, hence no “natural distribution” based on bilateral contracts, and where people can have no rational reason to suppose that if there were a “natural distribution,” their share in it would be larger or smaller than their neighbours’. This is the effect of the much-discussed “original position,” where complete ignorance of their own particulars (the “veil of ignorance”) enables people to choose a distribution (which is what choosing principles to design institutions which will shape the distribution, really amounts to) out of interest unsullied by any consideration which could make one person’s interest diverge from another’s. Behind the veil of ignorance (which blots out not only morally arbitrary personal particulars, but also society’s particulars, except for certain general sociological and economic causalities), whatever principles people, henceforth moved by interest only (for their sense of justice is incorporated in the original position), choose in order to get some social cooperation, will give rise to a just distribution. The design of the original position ensures that whatever any person chooses every other person will choose, too, since all individual differences have been defined out of it. With unanimity, no occasion for interpersonal comparisons can arise.
It is one thing to acknowledge as formally unassailable the analytic statement that principles chosen in the original position will be those of justice, given that this is how they have been defined. It is another to agree that it is Rawls’s principles that would be chosen; and yet another that what Rawls’s principles represent is really justice. Each of these different questions has a contentious literature, most of which I cannot even acknowledge here. Nozick (Anarchy, State and Utopia, Part II, section II) seems to me to deal more thoroughly and devastatingly than most with the justice of Rawls’s justice, while a rigorous (and to my mind convincing) argument that rational people in the “original position” would not choose his principles, is offered by Wolff in Understanding Rawls, chapter XV. (I shall be addressing a few supplementary remarks to this effect in the next section.)
Rawls’s core arguments are protected by a tissue of less formal discourse designed, in the spirit of “reflective equilibrium,” to enlist our intuitive agreement, appeal to our sense of the reasonable, and often to intimate that his justice is really little more than our plain prudential interest. Social justice is to be agreed to in part because, to be sure, we ought to be just, and because we like justice but in any event because it is a good idea, and because that is what elicits social peace. Such arguments echo those that champions of the “third world,” despairing of the generosity of rich white states, have lately been resorting to: give more aid to the teeming underdeveloped millions lest they go on multiplying, and drown you in their multitude, and rise up and burn your hayricks, or at the very least become clients of Moscow.34 Also, give more aid so you may do more trade. The use of bribe or threat to induce us to do the right thing is hardly less blatant in Rawls. As Little puts it in his pithy paraphrase: (in the original position) “each participant would agree that anyone who is going to be rich in the society he votes for must be coerced to aid the poor, because otherwise the poor may upset the applecart and he would not choose to be an apple in so unstable a cart. This sounds to me more like expediency than justice.”35
Moreover, to read Rawls, coercion hardly enters into it and if it does, it need not hurt. The operation of the principles of justice lets us have our cake and eat it, have capitalism and socialism, public property and private liberty all at the same time. Rawls’s blandness on these deeply contentious points is astounding: “A democratic society may choose to rely on prices in view of the advantages of doing so, and then maintain the background institutions which justice requires” (p. 281). Considering that “relying on prices” is synonymous with letting rewards be agreed between buyer and seller, to maintain background institutions which prejudge, constrain and retroactively adjust these rewards is, to put it no higher, to send contradictory signals to Pavlov’s dogs. It is, in any case, an attempt to mislead the market about “relying on prices.” In common with mainstream liberal opinion, Rawls must feel that there is no inconsistency; first, a market economy can be got to deliver its advantages “and then” the background institutions can do distributive justice while leaving the said advantages somehow intact. There is no inkling in any of this of the possibly quite complex unintended effects of having the price system promise one set of rewards and the background institutions causing another set to be delivered.36
Lastly, we are to rest assured that a social contract which is powerful enough to override property, and which mandates the quintessential “background institution” (the state) to ensure distributive justice, does not invest the state with noticeably more power. Power continues to rest with civil society and the state develops no autonomy. Nor has it a will to use it in pursuit of its proper purposes. No genie is let out of any bottle. Politics is just vector geometry. To quote Rawls: “We may think of the political process as a machine which makes social decisions when the views of representatives and their constituents are fed into it” (p. 196). We may indeed, but it would be better not to.
Egalitarianism as Prudence
Uncertainty about the share they will get is supposed to induce rational people to opt for an income distribution which only the certainty of getting the worst could make them choose.
A bird in the hand is best if we must have one and if two would be too many.
If the core of Rawls’s Theory of Justice was vulgarized à outrance, it could perhaps be summed up thus: Devoid of the vested interests bred by self-knowledge, people opt for an egalitarian society allowing only such inequalities as improve the lot of the least advantaged. This is their prudent option, because they cannot know whether they would do better, or worse, in an inegalitarian society. Refusing to gamble, they take the bird in the hand.
Any sophisticated intellectual construction is inevitably reduced to some easily communicated vulgarization by the time it takes root in the broad public consciousness. Only the most robust arguments, whose core is of one piece, do not in such a process get reduced to pathetic fallacies. An author who needlessly invokes complex solutions to problems which have been assumed away to begin with, soon finds that for example he is publicly reputed to have “proved by game theory” that maximin (maximizing the minimum among alternative outcomes) is the optimal life-strategy for “prudent men,” that “the conservative decision rule is to agree to moderately egalitarian social policies” and other words to this effect. Given the value of such terms as “prudent” and “conservative,” myths of this type are liable to sway many minds for some time to come, albeit for reasons which Rawls would be the first to disavow.
In his system, the characteristics of the “original position” (ignorance about one’s vital particulars coupled with some selective general knowledge of economics and politics), and three psychological assumptions, together determine what people would decide if put in such a position. They will choose Rawls’s second principle, notably the part of it enjoining the maximization of the minimum lot in an unknown distribution of lots, or “difference principle.” (The case for saying that they will also choose the first principle concerning equal liberty, and bar any more-of-one for less-of-the-other type of compromise between liberty and other “primary goods,” is much less open-and-shut, but we will not concern ourselves with that.) The first point at issue is whether the psychological assumptions leading to the maximin choice can properly be made about rational men in general, or whether they represent the special case histories of somewhat eccentric persons.
The end postulated for the rational man is the fulfilment of his life-plan. He ignores its particulars except that it takes a certain sufficiency of primary goods to fulfil it; these goods, then, serve needs and not desires.37 However, it is hard to see what else makes a fulfilled life-plan into a worth-while end if it is not the expected enjoyment of the very primary goods which go into its fulfilment; they are the means but they must also be the ends.38 The latter is really implied in their being goods whose index we seek to maximize (rather than merely bring to a level of adequacy) for the least-advantaged. Yet we are told that people are not anxious to have more of them once they have enough for fulfilling the plan. They show no interest in its over-fulfilment! This position is ambiguous, if not downright obscure.
To dispel the ambiguity, one could suppose that people want to fulfil the life-plan, not because of the lifelong access to enjoyable primary goods for which it is a shorthand symbol, but as an end in itself. The life-plan is like climbing Piz Palu which we just want to do, and primary goods are like climbing boots, of no value except as tools. The life-plan either succeeds, or it fails, with no half-way house. It is not a continuous variable, of which it is good to have a little and better to have a lot. It is an either/or matter; we do not want to climb Piz Palu a little, nor can we climb higher than its peak. The lack of interest in more than a sufficiency of primary goods would then make sense, too, for who wants two pairs of boots for climbing one mountain?
This logical consistency between the end and the means (a necessary condition of rationality) would, however, be bought at the price of imputing to rational men much the same absolute view of the life-plan that saints have of salvation. Damnation is unacceptable; salvation is exactly sufficient and nothing else matters besides; it is nonsense to want more salvation. The life-plan is an un-analysable whole. We do not and need not know what the good is of fulfilling it. However, it seems meaningless to wish to more-than-fulfil it, and utter hell to fall short.
There is nothing irrational per se in imputing an uncompromising, saintly mentality to people engaged in devising distributive institutions; saints can be as rational or as irrational as sinners. The problem is rather that, unlike salvation which has profound meaning and content for the believer, the life-plan is emptied of content if it must be abstracted from command over primary goods (i.e. if the latter are to be stopped from serving as ends); can it still be sustained that it is the goal of the rational man to fulfil it, though it looks an unexplained eccentricity to want to do so? Besides this, it is hardly worth mentioning that interpreting the life-plan as an ultimate end, and an all-or-nothing affair at that, is forbidden by Rawls’s own view that it is a mosaic of sub-plans which are fulfilled separately and perhaps also successively (see chapter VII), i.e. not an indivisible goal in which you either succeed or fail.
The significance of this question resides in the role three specific psychological assumptions are called upon to play in making rational people “choose maximin.” Take the last two first. We are told (1) that “the person choosing... cares very little, if anything, for what he might gain above the minimum stipend” (p. 154), and (2) that he rejects alternative choices which involve some probability, however minute, that he might get less than that, because “the rejected alternatives have outcomes that one can hardly accept” (p. 154). If these two assumptions were to be interpreted literally, the choosers would behave as if they had the single-point objective of climbing to a chosen mountain-top. They would go for a critical quantity (index number) X of primary goods like for a pair of nailed boots; less would be useless and more pointless.
If, in addition, they knew that opting for a society with a maximin-governed distribution of primary goods (income) would in fact produce for its least-advantaged members the critical stipend X, they would choose it regardless of the relative probabilities of getting a bigger, equal or smaller stipend in other kinds of societies. If worse alternatives are simply unacceptable and better ones leave you cold, it could not possibly matter how probable they are. Your maximand is discontinuous. It is the single number X. If you can get it at all, you take it. Talking of a “maximin” strategy and of “choice in the face of uncertainty” is the very paradigm of the red herring.
(What happens if a maximin-principled society turns out not to be rich enough to assure for everybody a high enough minimum stipend, such as X, sufficient to let them fulfil their life-plans? Rawls is satisfied that since such a society is both reasonably just and reasonably efficient, it can safely guarantee X for everybody [pp. 156 and 169]; the certitude of X, then, is a preferred alternative to facing incertitude.
This, of course, is as it may be. A society may be efficient, yet quite poor—the successive Prussias of Frederick William I and of Erich Honecker would probably both fit this bill—and people in the original position have no clue whether the efficient and just society they are about to devise might not be quite poor, too. James Fishkin takes the view that if a society can guarantee everybody’s satisfactory minimum, it is a society of abundance “beyond justice.”39 On the other hand, if the stipend guaranteed by enacting maximin fell short of the critical X, people could not both regard the meagre guaranteed stipend as one they “can hardly accept” yet rationally choose it in preference to non-guaranteed, uncertain but more acceptable alternatives.)
If uncertainty is to be something more in Rawls’s theory than a redundant catch-word, a passport to the fashionable land of decision theory, his life-plan and his two psychological assumptions about the minimum stipend (i.e. that less is unacceptable and more unnecessary) must not be taken literally. Though primary goods fulfil “needs and not desires,” we must firmly recall that they are consumable goods and not tools; that no matter how little or how much of them people have, they are never indifferent to having more; and that there is no significant discontinuity, no void above and below the satisfactory minimum stipend, but rather an intense “need” for primary goods below and a less intense “need” above it, so that the index of primary goods becomes a proper maximand, a fairly closely spaced schedule of alternative numbers, fit to be ordered consistently, instead of one lonely number. Rawls wishes the theory of justice to be a particular application of the theory of rational choice; if his assumptions are taken at face value, all occasion for choice is shut out in advance; we must interpret them more loosely so that they leave room for genuine alternatives.40
Having done so, we find that we have in fact glimpsed the outline of the utility function of the people concerned (despite Rawls’s protestations that they behave as if they had none). It conforms to the conventional supposition of diminishing marginal utility at least in the neighbourhood of a level X of primary goods. (There is a presumption, arising from Rawls’s remarks, that it conforms to it in more distant ranges, too.) If people were oblivious of this, they could not be conscious of the greater or lesser acceptability of various stipends of primary goods, and would not feel an imperative “need” to get at least so much, nor a much less compelling “need” to get more. Unless they had some such awareness of the relative intensity of their “needs” (or desires?), they could not rationally evaluate mutually exclusive uncertain prospects of getting different lots of primary goods, except for judging that one prospect was infinitely valuable and the others were worthless.
Consider next Rawls’s first psychological assumption about “sharply discounting estimates... of probabilities” (p. 154). People (still in the original position) are required to choose between principles which determine types of society, which in turn entail particular income distributions, under each of which they could find themselves drawing any one of the different lots of primary goods which reward differently situated people in that type of society. They can, as we know, choose an equal distribution, or maximin (likely involving some inequality), or one of a possibly large number of feasible distributions, many of which will be more inegalitarian than maximin.41 We also know that maximin dominates equality,42 i.e. that no rational and non-envious person will choose the latter if he can choose the former. Other than that, however, the mere requirement of rationality leaves the remaining choices wide open as between maximin and more unequal distributions. People are uncertain what their own lot would be in each, and have no objective data at all for guessing. They are, nonetheless, said to choose one and take their chances under it.
Since they are rational, the distribution they do choose must have the property that the utilities of the alternative lots that can be drawn under it, each multiplied by the probability (0 ≤ 1) of drawing that particular lot, yield a larger total sum than would any other feasible distribution. (For “yield” one may wish to substitute “are thought to yield.”) This is merely a corollary of the definition of rationality. In technical language, we would say “it is analytic that the rational man maximizes the mathematical expectation of utility.”43 The limiting case of uncertainty is certainty, where the probability of drawing a given lot is 1 and that of drawing any other lot is 0. The rational man can then be said to be simply maximizing utility and never mind its probability.
Rawls is free to assert that his parties are “sceptical” and “wary of probability calculations” (pp. 154-5). If they do choose in the face of uncertainty, which is what they have been put in the original position to do, their choices amount to imputing probabilities to outcomes, no matter whether they do it sceptically, confidently, anxiously or in any other state of emotion. We are even free to insist that they do no such thing. All that matters is that their behaviour would make sense if they did. If their conduct cannot be described in such terms, the assumption of their rationality must be given up. We can say, for instance, that people attach a probability of 1 to drawing the worst lot and probabilities smaller than 1 but greater than 0 to drawing each of the better lots; but we cannot in the same breath say that they are rational. If they were, they would not implicitly contradict the axiom that the odds of drawing all the lots add up to one.
It is easy enough to accept that if rational people were certain of drawing the worst lot under any income distribution, they would choose the one which had the “best worse” (maximin). This would always be the best play in a game where they could choose the distribution and the opposing player (their “enemy”) could assign them their place within it, for he would be sure to assign them the worst one.44 Rawls says both that people in the original position reason as if their enemy was going to assign them their lot (p. 152), and that they should not reason from false premises (p. 153). Presumably, the fiction of an enemy is intended to convey, without quite saying so, that people act as if they imputed a probability of 1 to the worst lot. In fact, maximin is designed to deal with the assumed certainty that our opponent will make moves that help him most and hurt us worst, but conveying this without saying so does not make the idea sensible in a situation where there is no enemy, no competing player, no opposing will, in short, where there is no game, only gratuitously introduced game-theory language.
Each person in the original position knows without a doubt that any unequal distribution of lots must by its nature contain some lots that are better than the worst one, and that some people will draw them. What can make him sure that he won’t? He has “no objective ground,” nor any other cause for reasonable belief, that he has no chance of being one of these people. But if the better lots do have non-zero probabilities, the worst one cannot have a probability of 1, or else the odds would not add up. Hence whatever rational people may choose in the original position, they do not choose maximin except by a fluke (in the course of “randomizing” in a mixed strategy?), so that the likelihood of unanimous choice is as good as nil and the theory is aground.45
A straightforward way to refloat it would be to jettison rationality. This would be all the more tempting as real people are not obliged to be rational. They are quite capable of tying themselves up in amazing logical inconsistencies. They can both accept and contradict a given axiom (such as the one that if one outcome is certain, the others must be impossible). Freed of the harsh and perhaps unrealistic discipline of rationality, they can be supposed to behave any way the theorist may fancy. (For instance, in his numerous writings on the theory of risky choices, G. L. S. Shackle substituted poetic and pretty suggestions about human nature in place of the arid calculus of probability and utility. The “liquidity preference” of Keynesian economics is at bottom also a resort to suggestive poetry. Many theories of producers’ behaviour rely on assumptions of non-rationality—full cost pricing, “growth” and market share objectives, rather than profit maximization, are well-known examples.) Once conduct need no longer conform to a central maximization assumption, “anything goes,” which is precisely the weakness of such approaches, though this need not prejudice their suggestiveness and teachability.
It takes only a modicum of poetic licence to impart the idea that it is a sensible thing to vote for a type of society in which you would not come to great harm even if your particular place in it were designated by your enemy. Thus is a non-rational, impressionistic case established for maximin, the egalitarian bird in the hand as the counsel of conservatism, prudence and moderation.
Perhaps without realizing that he has moved on to non-rational territory, Rawls bolsters this case, in the spirit of his reflective equilibrium, by two related arguments. Both appeal to our intuition and he seems to regard both as decisive. One is the strain of commitment: people will refuse to “enter into agreements that may have consequences they cannot accept,” especially as they will not get a second chance (p. 176). This is a puzzling argument. If we play “for real,” we may of course lose what we stake. We do not get it back to play with again. In this sense, we never get a second chance, though we keep getting other chances in subsequent plays. They may be worse ones, in that we enter them weakened by the loss of our stake in the first play. Poker and business do have this cumulative character, where nothing fails like failure and chance favours the longest purse; pure games of chance and games of skill do not. Admittedly, if we draw a poor lot of primary goods, under the assumptions of the Theory of Justice, we will not get a chance to draw again in our and our descendants’ lifetime. Social mobility is ruled out. Yet there is still a multitude of other gambles ahead, where we can be lucky or unlucky. Some of them, such as the choice of wife or husband, having children, changing jobs, may be as decisive for the success or failure of our “life-plan” as the “stipend of primary goods” we have drawn. Naturally, a low stipend may affect our chances in these gambles.46 Gambling for the lifetime stipend is, therefore, sure to be one of the most important gambles we ever face, which should by rights be an argument for, and not against, applying to it the rules of rational decision making.
If we know at all what we are doing, the term (for a lifetime, for all posterity) over which a given lot of primary goods, once drawn, is to last us, must of course be built into our valuation of each such lot from the worst to the best. It is precisely its lifetime term which explains why it is our entire life-plan which determines the relative intensity of our “need” for various-sized lots of primary goods. If drawing the lot of a dim-witted, idle beggar means living his life till we die, we are bound to weigh the risk of it very carefully. Our mathematical expectations of the utility of the lots among which there is such a repulsive one, must already reflect all our dread of this prospect. It seems double counting that, re-baptized “strain of commitment,” it must reflect the same dread a second time.47
No doubt we weigh the risk of death seriously. Death, whatever other prospects it may hold, in our culture is taken to exclude a second chance at earthly life. But it is obviously wrong to assert that the “strain of commitment” to an unacceptable outcome makes us refuse the risk of death. Our everyday peacetime life is abundant proof that we do not refuse it. Why would the risk of living a dim, idle and beggarly life be different in kind? It must all depend on our assessment of the probabilities characterizing the risk and of the attractiveness of the possible rewards we can earn by taking the risk. The “strain of commitment,” if there is one, is a legitimate consideration entering into these assessments. As a separate and overriding consideration, it is at best poetry.
Finally, it is incomprehensible to be told that good faith would stop us from accepting the strain of commitment, since if we took a given risk and lost (e.g. voted for a very inegalitarian income distribution and found ourselves in bottom place), we might not be able or willing to pay up (i.e. to accept the bottom place). If someone lets me bet him a million dollars which (unlike “Bet-a-million Gates”) I do not have, I am acting in bad faith and he is acting rashly. But the “original position” of Rawls is not credit betting. If I turn out a dim bottom-person in the society I chose and which treats such persons badly, there is no obvious way in which I can “default.” How do I refuse to honour my bet and play my allotted role of a dim bottom-person given that I am one? How do I extort from the more privileged members of my inegalitarian society a satisfactory minimum stipend and an agile brain? Considering that I could not if I would (and that as a dim person I may not even want to), the fear of my own default will not stop me. Good or bad faith, weakness of will and shame at not honouring my bet do not enter into it.
A separate informal argument contends that people will choose maximin, i.e. a tempered egalitarian distribution favouring the worst-placed, in order to make their decision “appear responsible to their descendants” (p. 169, my italics). Now it is one thing to be responsible and another to appear, to be seen to be so (though the two may overlap). If I want to do what I think is best for my descendants and never mind how my decision will look to them, I am acting as if I were a principal. In seeking to do as well for them as I would for myself, I might allow for their utility (say, the time-pattern of their “need” for primary goods) to be different from mine. My rational decision, however, must still correspond to the maximization of expected utility, except that it is my best guess of their utility I will try to maximize. If maximin is not rational for me, it does not become rational for my descendants either.
If, on the contrary, my concern is how my decision will look, I am acting as an employee or a professional adviser would rationally act for his principal. In addition to the latter’s interest, he would consider his own. It is difficult to devise conditions in which the two are certain to coincide. For example, if he made a gain for his principal, his own reward, fee, salary or job security might not increase proportionally. If he made a loss, his own loss of job or reputation as a responsible treasurer, trustee or manager might be more than proportional. As his assessment of the ex ante risk entailed in an ex post gain need not be the same as that of his principal, it cannot even be said that if instead of acting selfishly, he tried to maximize his principal’s gains he would be acting (i.e. taking the same gambles) as would the principal.48 In general, it is unlikely that if he maximized his expected utility, he would also be maximizing that of his principal, or vice versa. The two maxima will tend to diverge, the decisions of the employee being usually biased to ward off possible blame and to conform to conventional wisdom; the principal for whom he is acting cannot know that this conduct does not maximize his utility but only that of the employee.
If maximin, a bird in the hand and selling your uncertain birthright for a guaranteed mess of pottage were asserted often enough to be the responsible thing to do, the employee would rationally have to opt for them if his maximand was best served by appearing responsible to his principals, like Rawls’s contracting parties who want to appear responsible to their descendants. Here, then, is a fairly successful deduction of moderate egalitarianism from rationality. Rawls has accomplished this at the cost of having parents arrange the future of their children with a view, not to the latter’s best interests, but to what would probably make them look prudent in their children’s eyes. Some parents no doubt do behave like this, and some might even help install the welfare state in order that their children should praise their forethought;49 but on the whole the argument hardly looks strong enough to explain the terms of a unanimous social contract and to support a whole theory of justice.
Love of Symmetry
Wanting equality for its own sake is no reason for wanting one equality rather than another.
One-man-one-pay and one-man-one-vote are not rules providing their own justification.
Everybody is bound to like ultimate goods like liberty, utility or justice. Not everybody is bound to like equality. If the democratic state needs consent and obtains some by producing some equality (a rather summary description of one type of political process, but it will have to do for my present purpose), it is the function of liberal ideology to inculcate the belief that this is a good thing. The high road leading to harmony between state interest and ideological prescription is to establish a deductive link, a causal relation or a reciprocal implication between ends which nobody disputes, such as liberty, utility and justice on the one hand, and equality on the other. If the latter produces the former, or if the latter is indispensable for producing the former, it becomes a simple matter of consistency, of plain common sense, not to dispute equality any more than one would dispute, say, justice or well-being.
Hearsay has it that there are such deductive links: that freedom presupposes an equal sufficiency of material means; that social welfare is maximized by redistributing income from rich to poor; or that rational self-interest induces people unanimously to mandate the state to look after the least privileged. On examination, however, the detailed arguments from which the hearsay is distilled, prove unsuccessful. Like most hearsay, they have influence without quite silencing controversy and doubt. Far from establishing its universal validity to which men of good will cannot help but agree, it leaves the ideology vulnerable just as a religion which has the misplaced ambition of claiming the validity of logical deduction or scientific truth for its beliefs, is vulnerable. A less ambitious way, invulnerable to refutation, is to postulate that people do like equality for its own sake (so that its desirability need not be deduced from the desiredness of anything else), or at least they would if they recognized its essential character.
People love symmetry, their senses expect it, they identify it with order and reason. Equality is to a system of rules as symmetry is to a design. The essence of equality is symmetry. It is the basic presumption, it is what people visually or conceptually expect to find. For asymmetry as for inequality, they naturally look for a sufficient reason and are disturbed if there is none.
This line of reasoning tells people that it is inherent in their nature to approve of such rules as one-man-one-vote, to each according to his needs and the soil to him who tills it. In each of these rules, there is a clear symmetry which would be spoilt if some men had two votes and others one or none, if some (but only some) were given more than their needs and if some land belonged to the tiller and other land to the idle landlord.
However, if the choice is not between symmetry and asymmetry but between one symmetry and another, which is it inherent in human nature to prefer? Take the design of the human form, which must accommodate two arms and two legs. The arms can be placed symmetrically on either side of the spine, or symmetrically above and below the waist, and so can the legs. Between vertical and horizontal symmetry, which is right? A human figure with two arms on the right shoulder and hip and two legs on the left shoulder and hip would strike us as rather off-putting, not because it was asymmetrical (it would not be), but because its symmetry violated another to which our eye has become accustomed. Similarly, the preference for one order over another, one rule over another, one equality over another does not in any obvious manner spring from the depths of human nature, even if the preference for order over disorder may be plausibly held to do so.
The choice of a particular order, symmetry, rule or equality over its alternatives needs either habit, custom, or the force of substantive argument to explain it; if it is the former, political theory gets swallowed up in history (which might be a well-deserved fate) and if it is the latter, we will be back to square one, making derivative cases for a liberty-securing, a utility-maximizing or a justice-dispensing equality rather than proving the claim that equality for its own sake is intrinsically desirable.
It is worth spelling out that one equality crowds out another and that, as a corollary, the resulting inequality can always be said to have some equality as its reason and indeed its justification. (The adequacy of such a justification may have to be established, but this is very different from establishing the superiority of equality over inequality.) Take, for example, one of the central preoccupations of egalitarianism, the relations of symmetry or otherwise that prevail between workers, work, pay and need. One possible relation is equal pay for equal work, an equality which can be extended into the proportionality that more or better work should earn more pay.50 If this rule is good, it is a sufficient reason for inequality of remunerations. Another rule which suggests itself is to keep symmetry, not between work and pay, but between work and the satisfaction of the worker’s needs; the more children a worker has or the further away he lives from his place of work, the more he should be paid for equal work. This rule would yield unequal pay for equal work. Further “dimensions” can always be invented so that symmetry in one implies asymmetry in some or all the others, e.g. the importance or responsibility of the work done. Equal pay for equal responsibility will then (except for cases of purely accidental overlap) generally displace the equality between any two of the remaining characteristic dimensions of the relationship between worker, work, pay and need.
This logic is agreed by Marx to be valid up to and including the “first phase of communist society” (though, to cheer up last-ditch egalitarians it ceases to be valid in the second phase):
The right of the producers is proportional to the labour they supply.... This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labour. It recognizes no class differences, because everyone is only a worker like everyone else; but it tacitly recognizes unequal individual endowment and thus productive capacity as natural privileges. It is, therefore, a right of inequality, in its content, like every right. Right by its very nature can consist only in the application of an equal standard; but unequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal) are measurable only by an equal standard in so far as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only, for instance, in the present case, are regarded only as workers and nothing more is seen in them, everything else being ignored. Further, one worker is married, another not; one has more children than another, and so on and so forth. Thus, with an equal performance of labour, and hence an equal share in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on. To avoid all these defects, right instead of being equal would have to be unequal.
But these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society.... I have dealt... with “equal right” and “fair distribution”... in order to show what a crime it is to attempt... to force on our Party again, as dogmas, ideas which in a certain period had some meaning but have now become obsolete verbal rubbish... ideological nonsense about right and other trash so common among the democrats and French Socialists.
Quite apart from the analysis so far given, it was in general a mistake to make a fuss about so-called distribution and put the principal stress on it.51
True to form, clearer and more to the point, Engels blurts out:
The idea of socialist society as the realm of equality... should now be overcome, for it only produces confusion in people’s heads.52
Take two “dimensions” of comparison, like pay on the one hand, and the return on investment in education on the other. If pay in every job is equal, the return on the cost of getting educated for a particular job must be unequal (if educational requirements for various jobs differ, which they often do), and vice versa. These two equalities are mutually exclusive. Asked to choose the more egalitarian of the two alternative rules, many if not most people would name one-man-one-pay, rather than one-education-one-pay. There may be a multitude of good reasons for giving priority to the one or the other; but it seems impossible to claim that love of symmetry, order and reason can weigh in favour of either one. The symmetry between education and pay (the neuro-surgeon getting far more than the car-wash attendant) and the symmetry between the man and the pay (neuro-surgeon and car-wash attendant both getting a man’s pay), cannot be ordered in terms of their greater or lesser symmetry, order or reasonableness.
When one equality, symmetry, proportionality, can only prevail at the cost of upsetting another, equality itself is patently useless as a criterion for giving precedence to one or the other. Love of equality is no better as a guide for choosing between alternative equalities than love of children is for adopting a particular child. The appeal of rationality merely calls for some order and not for one particular order to the exclusion of another. This has been put with great clarity by Sir Isaiah Berlin in his 1956 essay, “Equality”: “unless there is some sufficient reason not to do so, it is... rational to treat every member of a given class... as you treat every other member of it.” However, “since all entities are members of more than one class—indeed of a theoretically limitless number of classes—any kind of behaviour can be safely subsumed under the general rule enjoining equal treatment—since unequal treatment of various members of class A can always be represented as equal treatment of them viewed as members of some other class.”53
Symmetry requires that all workmen be paid the same living wage; among “workmen” there are “skilled men” and “unskilled men,” and among “skilled men” there are hard workers and loafers, long-service men and newcomers, and so forth. Enough heterogeneity can be found within the “workmen” category for reasonable men to hold that the initial rule of equality between workmen, or simply men, should be replaced by other rules of equality between skilled workmen with equal length of service, equal industry, etc. each rule establishing equality within the class to which it relates. While one can break up any class into any number of other classes, the substantive reason for breaking up the class “workmen” and replacing one equality with several, is that the class is arguably too heterogeneous and a more nuancé classification corresponds better to merit and yields more rational equalities. But this is just our say-so; another reasonable man might argue the opposite; we would both be displaying Berlin’s “love of order,” the sense of symmetry which is the basis of the presumption for equality. We say “black” and he says “red,” and no third person called in to adjudicate can refer us to some mutually agreed criterion which will help decide which of the equalities we champion is more rational, more symmetrical.
Berlin warns that since one can always find a reason for permitting an inequality, the rational argument for equality is reduced to a “trivial tautology” unless the argument comes complete with the reason to be admitted as sufficient.54 This is his typically courteous way of saying that the rabbit has to be put in the hat first. What reasons anyone finds sufficient for overruling one equality in favour of another depends obviously on his value judgments, of which his conception of justice will form a part; for it is now surely clear that the application of preference-less, value-free principles of rationality, order, symmetry, etc. can always be made to yield more than one, mutually conflicting rule of equality.
There are rules, such as a person’s right to his property, which are plainly anti-egalitarian in one variable (property) while egalitarian in another (the law). Most egalitarians would then hold that equality before the law must be upheld, but the law must be changed as regards property rights. This means that there must be no discrimination between rich and poor in the application of the law, and in order for this rule not to clash with the rule that all men should have the same property, the rich must be eliminated (without discriminating against them). While this promises a field day for pirouettes of sophistry either way, it is clear that for some unstated reason, priority is being given to one equality over another.
Another aspect of symmetry, that having to do with the relation between an activity and its inherent purpose or “internal goal,” has also been proposed as an argument leading to egalitarian results.55 If the rich buy medical care and the poor would but cannot, the purpose of medicine, which is to heal (rather than heal the rich) is deformed. It is irrational for medicine to heal rich people who are ill and not poor ones. Their needs with respect to medicine are the same and symmetry demands that they should receive the same treatment. To repair the irrationality, arrangements need be made to equalize rich and poor with regard to their access to the best medical care. If only access to medical treatment is equalized, the remaining riches of the rich may continue to deform the purpose of some other essential activity, which will create a need for equalizing with respect to that activity, and so on, until no rich and no poor are left.
But the rich’s being rich, and the poor’s being poor, may itself be found to correspond to the “internal goal” of some other essential activity, such as lively competition in the economy for material riches. Equalizing the prizes between winners and losers would defeat its purpose and be irrational, etc. We now have one rationality entailing at least one irrationality, and while most egalitarians would have no trouble sorting this one out, their choice could not be based on the criterion of symmetry or reason. The “love of symmetry” argument and its developments, which show that equality is preferred for its own sake, depend on the alternative to equality being inequality. This is, however, a special case obtaining in artificially simplified situations only.56 If the alternative is generally another equality, the argument is interesting but unimportant.57 Order in place of chaos may provide its own justification, but order as conformity to one rule in place of conformity to another does not entail the superiority of either rule; unless one rule can be proven to be “better,” more conducive to an agreed value than the other, the choice between them is best regarded as a matter of taste.
A population whose members are unequal to each other in an indefinitely great number of respects can be ordered in conformity to indefinitely many alternative rules, ordering them by the colour of their hair generally excluding, except by coincidence, a ranking by any other characteristic; symmetry between treatment and colour of hair will imply asymmetry between treatment and age or treatment and education. However, there is usually quite wide agreement that for any given “treatment,” say the allocation of housing, only a handful of the indefinitely many dimensions in which applicants for housing may differ ought to be considered at all, e.g. rank on the waiting list, present accommodation, number of children and income. A rule of equality (proportionality, symmetry) can arbitrarily be laid down with respect to one of the four (generally entailing unequal treatment with respect to each of the remaining three), or a composite of all four may be formed with the aid of arbitrary weights, entailing unequal treatment with respect to any one but some rough-and-ready correspondence to the rational “sum” of all.
The agreement on what dimensions of a population ought to be considered at all for choosing a rule of equality, is a matter of the political culture. Thus, in a certain culture there may be wide consensus that steelworkers’ pay should not depend on how well they sing, yet students’ stipends should depend on how well they play football.
When a certain equality becomes an uncontroversial, generally agreed rule, the surrounding political culture can be taken to have become, in a sense, monolithic, for it has obliterated as irrelevant all the other dimensions, with respect to which alternative rules might have been formulated. One-man-one-vote in the democratic culture is the perfect example. It may be argued that each voter is a single individual, the rule of proportionality requiring that each should have a single vote. It may, on the contrary, be held that political decisions concern different individuals to different degrees (the paterfamilias vs the bachelor being a possible example), so that the proper rule should be: equal-concern-equal-vote, implying greater-concern-multiple-vote.58 On the other hand, one could maintain with the Representative Government of John Stuart Mill that some people are more competent to make political judgements, including judging candidates for office, than others, which calls for the rule: equal-competence-equal-vote, greater-competence-more-votes. Such arguments used to find some practical expression in most nineteenth-century electoral laws with provisions for property and educational qualifications (contested as they were most of the time, not least by the “false consciousness” of the propertied and the educated). Obviously, the more the belief is eroded that some people legitimately have a greater stake in political decisions than others, or that everybody is not as good as everybody else at judging political issues and candidates, the less these inequalities can serve as relevant dimensions for ordering people’s voting rights. In the limiting case only one-man-one-vote is left, beginning to look very much like the self-evident, the only conceivable symmetry of man and his vote.
By contrast, there is no consensus about the analogous role of one-man-one-pay, a rule calling for everybody getting the same pay either because they are all equal, one man being as good as another, or because their inequalities are not relevant to questions of pay. A great many rival rules continue to compete, suggesting variously that pay ought to be proportional to “work” or to “merit” (however defined), or to responsibility, seniority, need, educational accomplishment and so on, or possibly to hybrid composites of some of these or other variables.
It is anybody’s guess whether some or most of these rival rules will be obliterated from the political culture with the passage of time, possibly leaving a single surviving one which will then look as self-evident as one-man-one-vote does today. Liberal ideology, at all events, does not yet seem to have made its choice. Unlike socialism, which would give to each according to his effort, pending the fullness of time when it can give to each according to his needs (but which, in actual fact, simply gives to each according to his rank), liberal thought is perfectly pluralistic in what sort of symmetries should prevail between people and their remunerations, finding much to be said for merit, responsibility, unpleasantness of the work and any number of other rules of proportionality, as long as it is principles which prevail rather than the blatant “caprice of market contingencies.”
Where does this leave equality? The answer, I think, is a fascinating lesson in how a dominant ideology, totally unconsciously and without anybody’s directing design, adapts to the interests of the state. Liberalism only accords its respect to truly free contracts among equals, undistorted by “concealed duress” and “disguised oppression” (cf. pp. 120-1). Hence it would certainly not accept that people’s pay should simply be what it is; it is deeply concerned by what it ought to be, and its concern revolves around notions of justice and equity. However, as it tolerates a large number of mutually contradictory rules of equality, condemning few as unjust and inequitable, it will also tolerate a structure of remunerations where not only is everybody’s pay not equal to everybody else’s, but where it is not proportional either to any single most-logical, most-just (or perhaps most-useful, most-moral or most-anything) dimension of people’s inequalities. Whatever it will be, it will not be a “patterned” distribution.59
This is just as well, for if it were, what would be left for the state to correct? Its redistributive function, which it must keep exercising to earn consent, would be violating order and symmetry, upsetting the approved pattern in the act of levying taxes, giving subsidies and providing welfare in kind. On the other hand, if the pre-tax distribution is simply what it is without conforming to any one dominant norm of equality, the state has a great role to fulfil in imposing symmetry and order. This is why the pluralistic tolerance of a more or less patternless pre-tax distribution is such a precious feature of the liberal ideology. (By the same token, it is clear that the socialist ideology must not be pluralistic in this respect but must know right from wrong; for it is not serving a redistributive state which finds a pre-tax distribution determined by private contracts and improves upon it, but rather a state which directly decides factor incomes in the first place and can hardly propose to correct its own handiwork by redistribution.60 “To each according to his efforts on behalf of society,” is the rule which must be claimed to characterize the whole distribution as decided by the socialist state, whatever other rules may shape it in reality. It is impolitic to invoke “to each according to his needs.”)
At the same time, liberal ideology fosters the claim that certain rules of equality are still better (more just, or more conducive to other undisputed values) than others, its preference being for distributions which favour the many over the few. If this claim sticks (though as I have tried to show on pp. 150-85, there is no good reason why it should), it is the warrant for redistributive moves which meet the democratic criterion of attracting more self-interested votes than they repel. It bears repeating that redistribution meeting the Janus-faced purpose of favouring the many and getting its instigator elected, is not necessarily “egalitarian” in the everyday sense of the word. Starting off with an initial distribution far removed from the equality of the one-man-one-pay kind, it will be a move towards it; starting off with a distribution where such a rule is already being obeyed, it would be a move away from it and towards some other kind of equality.
To conclude: analysis of the argument that love of symmetry, which is intrinsic in human nature, is tantamount to love of equality for its own sake, should have helped to focus attention on the multi-dimensional character of equality. Equality in one dimension typically entails inequalities in others. Love of symmetry leaves undetermined the preference for one sort of symmetry over another, one equality over another. Thus, one-man-one-vote is one equality, equal-competence-equal-vote is another. It is only in the limiting case, where all men are taken to have one (i.e. the same) competence, that they are not mutually exclusive.
Similarly, the rules “one-man-one-tax” or “from each, equally” (i.e. poll tax), “from each according to his income” (i.e. flat-rate tax) and “from each according to his capacity to pay” (i.e. progressive income tax with some putative proportionality between tax and the taxpayer’s residual means over and above his “needs”), are generally alternatives. Only in the limit where everybody’s incomes and needs are the same, are the three rules compatible.
There is no intelligible sense in which one of two alternative equalities is more equal, or bigger, than the other. As they are not commensurate (cannot be made to yield an algebraic sum), subtracting a lesser equality from a greater one so as to leave some residual equality is gobbledy-gook. Consequently, it cannot be affirmed that a policy change which enthrones one equality by violating another has, on balance, introduced more equality into the arrangements of society.
It makes perfect sense, however, to prefer one equality to another and to defend this preference on the ground that de gustibus non est disputandum (which is not the same as making an ethical judgement about their relative justice), as well as to allocate one’s own preference to that of the majority on the ground that respect for democracy demands it. As a practical matter, people do speak of social and political arrangements being (yes or no, more or less) egalitarian, and though it is not always very evident what they have in mind, we might as well suppose that most often it is this democratic criterion they are implicitly employing. None of this, however, makes the slightest contribution to establishing the claim (to which the “love of symmetry” argument is finally reduced) that what a majority will vote for also happens to be morally more valuable or corresponds more closely to the common good.
Few endowments are divisible and transferable and few can be levelled.
No effort to make society drabber will make it drab enough to relieve envy.
Hayek, invoking Mill, pleads that if we value a free society, it is imperative “that we do not countenance envy, not sanction its demands by camouflaging it as social justice, but treat it... as ’the most anti-social and evil of all passions.’ ”;61 Camouflaging it as social justice might not help it anyway. Looked at through a tougher radicalism than Hayek’s, the justice of a demand does not imply that someone or other ought to see to its being granted.62 On the contrary, there may even be an argument that it positively ought not to be granted: social justice, like pandering to other forms of political hedonism, may be held to be anti-social, likely to lead to the corruption of civil society by the state and to a dangerous deformation of both.
It is equally possible and far more usual, however, to regard envy as one regards pain, as something which should be relieved and whose cause should be removed if possible, without trying to be too clever about distant and hypothetical corrupting consequences of the remedy. If relief from pain is in the here and now, while the damaging effects of drugs are uncertain contingencies at the far end of a somewhat speculative process, it is tempting to go ahead with the treatment. It is, I think, in this manner that envy, despite its altogether un-virtuous connotations, comes to be considered by many if not most people a legitimate reason for altering certain arrangements of society. I propose, though only for argument’s sake, to admit the analogy between envy and pain, as well as the closing of the horizon to the distant risk of damage that these alterations may do to the structure of civil society and of its being overwhelmed by the state. If we do this, we will be meeting on its own ground the liberal view of envy as a possibly minor but very straightforward and rugged reason—the last one if utility, justice and love of symmetry all fail—for holding that equality is valuable. The problem we shall then address is by and large this: if relieving envy is a worthy objective, are we committed to reducing inequality (unless a stronger one overrides this objective)?
As usual, the answer is determined by the manner of constructing the question. In an important article dealing with symmetry of treatment, unequal work and the conflict between non-envy and efficiency, Hal R. Varian defines envy as someone’s preference for someone else’s bundle (of goods—in one version including also the effort and ability to earn the income which it takes to buy them), and equity a situation where nobody feels any such preference.63 A sacrifice of efficiency enables the bundles to be equalized, i.e. it can abolish envy. (Needless to say, this is a logical implication, not a policy recommendation.) If effort is a negative good, it may be possible for efficiency to be consistent with equity, for people may not envy a bigger bundle if it takes a bigger effort to earn it. The significant point for our purpose is that all inequalities are reduced to the single inequality of bundles. By equalizing bundles, we can eliminate inequality, hence envy, though there may be a more or less strong conflicting objective overriding the worth of non-envy.
Less sophisticated approaches a fortiori tend to subsume inequalities under the proxy of a sole inequality, generally that of money. Money is perfectly divisible and transferable. But it is manifestly impossible to make asymmetrical bundles symmetrical (e.g. proportional to an agreed attribute of their owners, or simply equal to each other) if they contain indivisible and non-transferable personal endowments like poise, or presence, or the ability to pass school examinations, or sex appeal. Those whose bundles are poorly endowed in any particular respect presumably resent this just as bitterly as they would different endowments of money. Moreover, the literally countless inequalities which simply cannot be made to conform to some symmetry or equality are closely relevant to the relatively few inequalities (money, or job opportunities, or military service) which can.
In defence of inequalities, Nozick offers the ingenious argument that envy is really hurt amour propre, and if someone feels hurt in one respect (low scoring at basketball, money-making) he will find other inequalities (linguistic ability, handsomeness) where he will be the higher scorer.64 If the state, to reduce envy, eliminates a dimension of inequality (e.g. all incomes are equalized), self-esteem will seek comparisons along the remaining dimensions: “The fewer the dimensions, the less the opportunity for an individual successfully to use as a basis for self-esteem a nonuniform weighting strategy that gives a greater weight to a dimension he scores highly in.”65
This would be an excellent argument against a truly Utopian sweep of egalitarian measures which eliminated or greatly constrained possible inequalities. But such a contingency is really quite artificial and need not worry the convinced non-egalitarian. Even Chairman Mao’s young cultural revolutionaries with their reputation for forthright methods, could not make much of a dent in the range of inequalities “available” in Chinese society, drab as it may have been when they set out to make it drabber. The most successful egalitarian scorched-earth campaign could not reduce more than nominally the scope for getting one’s self-esteem wounded by unflattering, and for getting it healed by flattering dimensions of inequality.
Nor would rejection of the “wounded self-esteem” view of envy necessarily validate it as an argument for obliterating inequalities. For envy may be pain, dis-utility, resentment of an “undeserved” asymmetry, a sense of deprivation relative to the superior endowment of a “reference group,” an external dis-economy of the riches of rich people, or whatever, without any of this telling us much about its causal dependence on inequality. There is no reason whatsoever for supposing that it is the Cartesian one of big-cause-big-effect, small-cause-small-effect (so that by reducing the extent of a given inequality or the number of inequalities or both, you could reduce envy, even if it were the case that by reducing the extent of every inequality to nil, you could eliminate it).
It is no more implausible to suppose other types of causation. An inequality may cause envy as a trigger causes a bang. A bigger trigger would not produce a bigger bang. If inequality is to envy as the size of the trigger is to the loudness of the bang, less inequality will not produce less envy—though absolute equality, if it were conceivable, would presumably produce absence of envy (not that one can ever tell, because the case cannot arise). This agnostic view, if adopted, makes the fight against inequalities in order to relieve envy look as misplaced as was the fight against windmills in order to affirm Don Quixote’s chivalry.
The supposition of lesser-cause-lesser-effect which is the rational basis for expecting envy to be alleviated by levelling, gains credibility from the visible pleasure which always tended to greet acts of pulling down, successful attacks against privilege throughout history. It might, however, be a delusion to see “the implication of a difference” in what is actually “the consequence of a change.”66 If patient A lies in a crowded public ward and patient B in the luxurious penthouse suite of the same hospital, A (and most other public ward patients) may resent B’s privilege; when B is deprived of his suite and is put in a private room, A may feel pleasure as a consequence of the change. On the other hand, if B was in the private room right from the outset, A’s resentment against B’s privilege, whatever its intensity, may well be no different than if B had been in a suite; the implication of the difference between suite and room could well be nil.
The essential point to grasp is that when chateaux burn and heads roll, when the rich are expropriated and the privileged get their come-uppance, the envious may feel elated that justice is being done, that their “relative deprivation” is being redressed. They may draw satisfaction from a single act (expropriation), or possibly a protracted process, though the manifestation of change is less dramatic than in the act (take the erosion of historic great fortunes through taxation). The reverse should also be true. If B wins the lottery, or marries his daughter to a desirable catch, A’s feelings (if any) of envy would be provoked by the event, the stroke of luck, the undeserved windfall accruing to B, even if after the windfall B is still the poorer man of the two. On the other hand, a state of affairs (a given inequality) may (or may not) engender envy independently of the sensation engendered by the event, act or process which brought it about.
The burning of the chateau, the breaking up of great fortunes, or the taking of the rich man’s money and its transfer to the poor man will quite likely engender satisfaction in the envious, but only while the drama of the move from one state of affairs to another lasts. Once the chateaux have all been burned, they cannot be burnt again. While the hovel-dweller may have been envious of the chatelain, he now has cause to feel envious of the Jacobin lawyer, his airs and the former Church property he managed to buy for funny money (“assignats”), and nothing permits us to suppose that his envy has become less intense as its trigger has changed. But if the inequality is a mere trigger and envy’s source lies in enviousness, what is the point in fighting inequalities which will yield to levelling, when there are always many more which will not?
Regardless of the breadth of levelling measures, any conceivable real-life situation must still contain a sufficiency of inequalities which are impervious to levelling, compensating and which resist any other practical remedy too. Envy is provoked by a person comparing his situation with the situation of certain others and perceiving inequalities. If one perceived inequality is eliminated, and the person is a comparing sort, his antennae are soon bound to make a half-turn and perceive another inequality (in terms of which he is “relatively deprived”), out of the countless ones which might catch his eye, because such scanning is inherent in his need to see his situation in relation to that of others—or else he is immune to envy.
Demands for narrowing and, at the limit, removing certain inequalities, supported by the promise that envy will decrease as a result, do not seem to have a more compelling claim to being granted than demands which are supported by recourse to utility, justice, liberty, or demands which come uncluttered by any supporting moral argument. The promise of relief from envy is a redundant appeal to liberal credulity. The liberal does not need the promise. He is predisposed to approve such demands anyway. He has an “existential” need to adhere to his own ideology and to recognize in the redistributive policies of the state the production of incontrovertible social value.
[1. ]I am alluding to S. M. Lipset’s frequently quoted cri de coeur (Political Man, 1960, p. 403), that democracy is not a means to the good life, it is the good life.
[2. ]Notably by the state drafting potential muggers into the army and leading them to pillage rich foreign towns in the manner of Bonaparte in 1796. The conflict arises later, in the follow-up: Bonaparte soon came to require, as he put it, “an annual revenue of 100,000 men” (“une rente de 100,000 hommes”).
[3. ]Cooperative solutions are best understood as outcomes of positive-sum games with no losers. A game, however, may have losers as well as gainers and yet be considered to have a positive sum. In helping some by harming others, the state is supposed to be producing a positive, zero or negative sum. Such suppositions in strict logic imply that utilities are interpersonally comparable.
[4. ]Is the liberal intellectual better off in the state of nature, or under state capitalism? If he just cannot tell, and if he is the sort who must nudge society, which way should he nudge it?
[5. ]A simple, undifferentiated community in this context means not only that all its members are equal (before God, before the law, in talents, influence, wealth or other important dimensions in which equality is customarily measured), but that they are all about equally concerned by any of the issues which come up to be democratically decided on behalf of the community. A community of equals in the customary loose sense may have members of different occupations, sex and age groups. They will not be equally concerned by issues which impact occupations or sex or age groups differentially; most issues do.
[6. ]It is an interesting fact that German and French company law make important provision for “blocking minorities” (Sperrminorität, minorité de blocage), while British company law and American corporation law do not.
[7. ]Cf. Thomas C. Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict, 2nd edn, 1980, p. 19. For Schelling, the secret ballot protects the voter. This is undoubtedly true. However, it is also true that it transforms him into a bad risk. Corrupting, bribing him becomes a sheer gamble.
[8. ]Majority rule, with votes cast entirely according to interest, would inevitably produce some redistribution, hence some inequality in a society of equals. In a society of unequals, there would likewise always be a majority for redistribution. As Sen has remarked, a majority could be organized for redistribution even at the expense of the poor. “Pick the worst off person and take away half his share, throw away half of that, and then divide the remainder among the rest. We have just made a majority improvement.” (Amartya Sen, Choice, Welfare and Measurement, 1982, p. 163.) Competition, however, ensures that the majority has more attractive, richer redistributive alternatives to vote for, i.e. that redistribution will not normally be at the expense of the poor. Given the choice, egalitarian redistribution would be preferred to the inegalitarian, because the potential pay-off is always greater in rich-to-poor than in poor-to-rich redistribution.
[9. ]Wiser heads would perhaps judge me foolhardy for advancing a definition of liberalism, considering that “it is an intellectual compromise so extensive that it includes most of the guiding beliefs of modern Western opinion.” (Kenneth R. Minogue, The Liberal Mind, 1963, p. viii, my italics.)
[10. ]Liberals do not espouse these goals today because they expect the majority of people to espouse them tomorrow. Rather they expect the majority to do so because these goals are valuable. Either reason would be sufficient for boarding the bandwagon before it started rolling. The second reason, however, tells liberals that the bandwagon is morally worthy of being boarded.
[11. ]R. H. Tawney, Equality, 1931, p. 241, italics in text.
[12. ]Contrast the diagnosis of Tocqueville: “on semblait aimer la liberté, il se trouve qu’on ne faisait que haïr le maître.” (C. A. H. C. de Tocqueville, L’ancien régime et la révolution, Gallimard, 1967, p. 266. English translation, The Ancien Regime and the French Revolution, 1966.)
[13. ]Tawney, Equality, p. 242, my italics.
[14. ]In his classic Origins of Totalitarian Democracy (1960), J. L. Talmon, having postulated that there is now a liberal and a totalitarian democracy but that at one time these two were one, is at a loss to locate the schism. He looks for it mainly in and around the French Revolution without claiming that he has found it. Perhaps it is impossible to find the schism; perhaps there never was one.
[15. ]Lord Acton, Essays on Freedom and Power, 1956, p. 36.
[16. ]There must be an “out” for the man who likes it in boot camp; some prisoners, too, like the relief from responsibility and are said to prefer inside to out. To accommodate this, we can always have recourse to the dialectic understanding of freedom. The man under military discipline attains real freedom. Civil society governed by the state is a prerequisite of genuine freedom as opposed to the virtual freedom offered by the state of nature. Many people actually do use such arguments.
[17. ]Karl R. Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, 1962, vol. II, pp. 124-5, my italics.
[18. ]Ibid., p. 124.
[19. ]For a different and much more complete formulation of this point, cf. Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia, 1974, pp. 263-4.
[20. ]Other liberal arguments about redistribution are not positive but normative; they deal with values, not facts; their recommendations are supported by appeals to social justice rather than social utility.
[21. ]M. Friedman and L. J. Savage, “The Utility Analysis of Choices Involving Risk,” in American Economic Association, Readings in Price Theory, 1953, p. 88. First published in Journal of Political Economy, 56, 1948.
[22. ]J. Rawls, Theory of Justice, 1972, p. 156. The second and third “features” invoked by Rawls to explain why his people do what they do mean, respectively, that a rise in his “index of primary goods” (which is stated to be co-variant with his income tout court) would not make the Rawls man significantly better off, and a fall would make him intolerably worse off.
[23. ]“Not even the chooser himself knows his preference until he is confronted with an actual choice, and his understanding of his own preferences is to be doubted unless he is in a real choice situation.” (Charles E. Lindblom, Politics and Markets, 1977, p. 103.) If this stand looks a little too severe with regard to the simplest, tea-rather-than-coffee preference relation, it is no more than properly cautious when applied to whole modes of life.
[24. ]I say “other” futures markets to stress that financial markets are ipso facto markets in futures, e.g. in future interest and dividends.
[25. ]Thus Robert Wolff in Understanding Rawls, 1977, p. 173: “A full belly of beer and pizza requires very little money, but a cultivated, tasteful, elegant lifestyle, rationally managed in order to ’schedule activities so that various desires can be fulfilled without interference’ costs a bundle.”
[26. ]F. Y. Edgeworth, The Pure Theory of Taxation, 1897, reprinted in Edgeworth, Papers Relating to Political Economy, 1925, p. 114, my italics.
[27. ]Rawls’s principles serve to help design “practices” or “institutions” which “determine (the) division of advantages” and underwrite “an agreement on the proper distributive shares” (A Theory of Justice, p. 4). (Page references in parentheses are all to this work.) He considers institutions on a high level of abstraction and generality, but it is clear, either from the context (esp. pp. 278-83) or from analysis of his arguments that the one institution that has “bite” and that can “underwrite” anything at all, is the state.
[28. ]There is no ground for supposing, at this stage, that all will. The position does not make for unanimity.
[29. ]I believe it is fair to interpret Rawls as meaning that the social contract is a unanimous (omnilateral) agreement on principles for a state which will, by overriding ordinary (bilateral) contracts whenever the principles so require, ensure a just distribution. The state of nature is a network of ordinary contracts giving rise to a “natural distribution” with no “institutions” (no state) for making it conform to a conception of justice. Aspects other than the distributive aspect of justice do not seem to enter into the distinction between “social contract” and “state of nature” in an important and explicit manner. A society equipped with a state concerned with the preservation of life and property only, would from the Rawlsian point of view still be a society in the state of nature. As he would be the first to admit, Rawls’s social contract descends from Rousseau and not from Hobbes.
[30. ]Richard Miller, “Rawls and Marxism,” in Norman Daniels (ed.), Reading Rawls, 1974, p. 215, argues that willing cooperation can be maintained “for centuries” by ideological institutions and the coercive apparatus of the state (paid for out of the workers’ taxes!) without any social contract about principles of distributive justice.
[31. ]Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia, pp. 192-5.
[32. ]In fairness to Rawls, he provides an account (para. 9) of what moral philosophy is about, which (if correct) would make his stand right end up. His parallel with the theory of syntax is revealing. The way people speak is the source of knowledge about language. People’s moral judgements are the source of substantive knowledge about justice. If it is democratic to like equality, this tells us something about justice—though nothing as crude is implied as that the principles of justice derive from opinion polls.
[33. ]“Strong” preference at that; to justify the inequality, even the least advantaged must be better off than they would be under equality, and other groups, strata or classes (or whatever representative men represent) must be better off than the least advantaged, for otherwise there would be no inequalities to justify. (I take it that people always “prefer” to be “better off” and prefer only that.) The two formulations “inequalities must be to the advantage of every representative man” and “of the least advantaged representative man” respectively, become equivalent vis-à-vis equality as the alternative, but not vis-à-vis the general case of all possible distributions.
Everybody is better off in both p and q than in o (equality), but only A and B are better off in the more unequal q than in the less unequal p; the additional inequality of q is of no benefit to the least advantaged C, and he is merely indifferent between them (being neither envious nor altruistic). Hence q will be ruled out as violating at least one of the principles of justice, though it would yield three more primary goods at nobody’s expense.
[34. ]If this were so, it ought surely to be taken by nations opposed to Moscow as a potent foreign policy reason for not increasing aid, in order to hang all these teeming millions around Moscow’s neck.
[35. ]I.M. D. Little, “Distributive Justice and the New International Order,” in P. Oppenheimer (ed.), Issues in International Economics, 1981.
[36. ]Among such unintended effects, a fairly obvious one is the growth of the “black economy” and of voluntary unemployment. These, in turn, set off a self-reinforcing tendency to place an ever-weightier burden on the ever-shrinking “legal” and gainfully employed proportion of society which lets the “background institution” batten on it, instead of its battening on the “background institution.”
[37. ]John Rawls, “Reply to Alexander and Musgrave,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 88, 1974.
[38. ]Cf. the diagnosis of Benjamin Barber, “the instrumental status of primary goods is compromised” (Benjamin Barber, “Justifying Justice: Problems of Psychology, Measurement and Politics in Rawls,” American Political Science Review, 69, June 1975, p. 664). His reason for finding this, though, is different from mine.
[39. ]James Fishkin, “Justice and Rationality: Some Objections to the Central Argument in Rawls’s Theory,” American Political Science Review, 69, 1975, pp. 619-20.
[40. ]Formally a believer faced with the alternatives of going to heaven or to hell (and who knows neither purgatory, nor degrees of heaven from first to seventh), would be exercising rational choice by opting to go to heaven. However, the surrounding assumptions render the choice problem trivial, or rather phoney.
[41. ]This must obviously remain the case no matter how much Rawls’s first principle (equal liberty, whatever that may mean) and the second part of his second principle (positions open to talents) restrict the set of feasible distributions by hindering the occurrence of very small and very large incomes (pp. 157-8)—a hindrance we may well admit for purposes of argument, without conceding that Rawls has established its likelihood.
[42. ]For completeness, we may add that if maximin dominates equality, it must also dominate income-distributions intermediate between maximin and equality, i.e. all distributions more egalitarian than itself.
[43. ]A frequently committed howler is to confuse the mathematical expectation of utility with the utility of the mathematical expectation. (The coincidence of the two would permit the statement that the marginal utility of income was constant.) A related howler is to double-count the utility function and the attitude to risk, as in “he does not maximize utility because he has an aversion to risk,” as if risk-aversion were not just a more colloquial term for characterizing the form of his utility function. Cf. Rawls’s version of the argument in favour of maximizing average utility: “if the parties are viewed as rational individuals who have no aversion to risk” (p. 165, my italics), “prepared to gamble on the most abstract probabilistic reasoning in all cases” (p. 166, my italics), but not otherwise, they will maximize the mathematical expectation of utility calculated with the help of Bayesian probability. But in behaving at all sensibly, they must be doing this anyway! If they are averse to risk, they will take one gamble and if they are not, they will take another. If “refusing to gamble” is purported to be rational, it must be capable of being described as the gamble where the sum of the utilities of the possible outcomes, multiplied by their probabilities (which are all zero except for one outcome whose probability is unity), is the highest. It is virtually impossible so to describe the refusal to accept the very small probability of losing a very small sum for the sake of the remaining very high probability of gaining a very large sum, i.e. the requirement is not an empty one.
[44. ]This is analogous to the “fixed-sum game” of dividing a cake among n players where the nth player does the dividing and the n-1 players do the choosing. The nth player is sure to be left with the smallest slice. He will try to make it as big as possible, i.e. divide the cake into equal slices. This is his dominant strategy. If the n-1 players are blindfolded, n has no dominant strategy.
[45. ]With people knowing no more than that every lot has some non-zero probability of being drawn and all the lots together have a probability of 1 (i.e. one, and only one, of the lots is sure to be drawn), any further logical inference being “discounted” (which is how Rawls expects his parties to reason) it is hard to see what will make their choice determinate, let alone unanimous. The plausible hypothesis seems to be that they will behave like particles in quantum mechanics, and never (short of eternity) reach agreement on a social contract.
[46. ]Unlike poker or business where a previous loss tends to worsen present chances, certain other risky choices may not be adversely affected. For instance, a low lifetime stipend may not worsen the odds against marrying the right person or having good children.
[47. ]The prudent man’s finding that risk-taking is difficult, especially if it is a risk of losing your stake, is not unlike Sam Goldwyn’s celebrated profundity that forecasting is difficult, especially if it is about the future.
[48. ]Anyone who has had his investments handled by a bank trust department is probably familiar with the phenomenon of “managing wisely but not well.” Anyone who has observed the functioning of financial markets dominated by institutions rather than by principals, knows what it means that paid portfolio managers “do not want to be heroes” and “do not stick their necks out,” buying when everybody else is buying and selling when everybody else is selling.
[49. ]If parents thought that children were going to grow up less able, less provident and less resilient than themselves, they might consider that a welfare state would be genuinely better for them than an inegalitarian state. The parents might then want to install it straightaway, either because they could not trust their children to recognize their best interests, or because the choice of state had to be made right now for all posterity. However, Rawls does not use this line of paternalistic argument.
[50. ]Also called “Aristotelean equality.” If the extension is denied, the rule becomes “equal pay for equal work as well as for unequal work,” which seems contrary to the intention of the proposer. If he did not want proportionality, he would have proposed “one man, one pay” regardless of the quantity or quality of the work.
[51. ]K. Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Programme,” 1875, in K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works in One Volume, Moscow, 1968, pp. 320-1, italics in text.
[52. ]F. Engels, “Letter to A. Bebel,” in Marx and Engels, Selected Works, p. 336, italics in text.
[53. ]Isaiah Berlin, “Equality,” Concepts and Categories, 1978, pp. 82-3.
[55. ]Bernard Williams, “The Idea of Equality,” in P. Laslett and W. G. Runciman (eds), Philosophy, Politics and Society, 1962.
[56. ]For example, the division of a God-given cake among people who are absolutely equal to each other; they are equally God-fearing, have equal deserts, equal needs, equal capacities for enjoyment, etc., to mention only those “dimensions” of comparison which are usually thought to be relevant in the “division of the cake,” though there are obviously many others.
[57. ]Cf. Douglas Rae et al., Equalities, 1981. Rae and his co-authors, very sensibly, want us to ask, not “whether equality” but “which equality?” (p. 19). They develop a “grammar” for defining and classifying equalities, and to provide some light relief, by permutation find no less than 720 sorts of equality (p. 189, note 3). However, they adopt the position that one situation can often, if not always, be diagnosed as more equal than another, i.e. that at least a partial ordering of social situations is possible, according to how equal they are. My view is that ordering situations characterized by alternative equalities is inevitably done according to some other, often occult, criterion (e.g. justice or interest) and cannot be performed according to the criterion of equality itself.
[58. ]Some of the same effect is achieved, in a totally unintended fashion, under one-man-one-vote by the phenomenon of electoral non-participation, providing it is correct to assume that those who abstain are less concerned in their legitimate interests by the result of the election than those who do vote. The unintended effect could be transformed into an intended one by making it difficult to vote. The Australian law punishing abstention by a fine should, of course, have the obverse effect.
[59. ]This is Nozick’s term for a distribution characterized by dependence on a single variable (as well as for a set of distributions which is made up of a small number of such subdistributions), cf. Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia, p. 156. If all income from employment depended on the variable “work,” under the rule of proportional equality “equal pay for equal work, more pay for more work,” and all other income on one other variable, the distribution of total income would be “patterned.” If many contradictory rules are simultaneously at work and some incomes do not obey any obvious rule, the total distribution is “patternless”; at least this is my reading of Nozick’s use of this very suggestive and serviceable term.
[60. ]“Modern capitalism relies on the profit principle for its daily bread yet refuses to allow it to prevail. No such conflict, consequently no such wastes, would exist in socialist society.... For as a matter of common sense, it would be clearly absurd for the central board to pay out incomes first and, after having done so, to run after the recipients in order to recover part of them” (Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, 5th edn, 1976, pp. 198-9).
[61. ]F. A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty, 1960, p. 93.
[62. ]Commutative justice has an agreed procedure, issuing in judgements of courts of law, for deciding which “demands of justice” should be granted. The demands of social justice, however, are not adjudicated in this way. Nobody’s judgement in social justice entails a moral obligation for somebody else to have it executed.
[63. ]Hal R. Varian, “Equity, Envy and Efficiency,” Journal of Economic Theory, 9, September 1974. For a development of this approach by a widening of the criterion of non-envy cf. E. A. Pazner and D. Schmeidler, “Egalitarian Equivalent Allocations: A New Concept of Economic Equity,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 92, November 1978.
[64. ]Nozick, Anarchy, State and Utopia, pp. 239-46.
[65. ]Ibid., p. 245.
[66. ]These were Alfred Marshall’s highly suggestive terms for distinguishing between what our current jargon calls “comparative statics” and “dynamics.”