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A Theory of Justice

by John Rawls

1972, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press

Written by Darrell Anderson.

Many people acclaim A Theory of Justice to be a pinnacle 20th century book about political philosophy and theory. The book is nothing more than a cleverly disguised polemic embracing coercive wealth redistribution.

Ramble several dozens of pages into the book and a reader eventually realizes that Rawls never explicitly defined the word justice. Odd considering the title of the book, but not so odd considering the disguised thesis. How does one substantiate almost 600 pages of discourse without once defining the key word of the entire discussion? A common method for authors to hoodwink readers is to not define the terms of the discussion. Avoiding specifics open doors for deception. A more appropriate title for this book would be A Theory of Social Justice, or A Theory of Distributive Justice. Such a title then would provide a clue about the book’s thesis. The book has nothing to do with the concept of justice — the desire to remedy trespasses.

Red flags should rise any time the topic of “distributive justice” appears. Rawls wanted to address the question of how to distribute the “benefits” of cooperative and collective living. Such a question is laid to rest by properly identifying the system, elements, and relational rules of that system. In the real world of human action, only people interact with one another. The benefits of interaction are part of the cooperating and contracting process. Although often there are spillover effects from all interactions, in such an environment nobody receives less than they bargained. That is, some people might receive more than they bargained, some non-participants might receive benefits, but the direct participants receive at least what they negotiated or agreed. Discussing how the indirect benefits of such interaction should be distributed is meaningless.

The concept of distributive justice arises only when people participate in coercively derived exchanges and non-participants are provided standing to share directly in all benefits of the exchange. This concept is better known as statism, a process whereby people try to position themselves politically to obtain as much as possible with as little effort as possible. Discussing distributive justice is a senseless exercise because the coercive nature of exchange is ignored. The starting point of the discussion is always wrong.

Add the insult of coercively requiring people to accept dealing with artificial legal fictions through which this coercive redistribution occurs (the illusion of “the state”). Create additional confusion through the legal fiction illusion that many people possess title to certain resources when in fact no such title exists (“public property”), and the entire discussion of “distributive justice” is forever clouded.

Rawls thought that justice is the first virtue of society. Observant people will disagree. The first virtue is peaceful survival and self-preservation. The closest Rawls came to defining the word justice was through his concept that justice is fairness. Yet this too is vague. Fair according to whom? Those people who use political power to coercively redistribute wealth will define fairness in one way and those coerced to share their wealth involuntarily will define fairness in another. If history reveals anything, people should have learned by now that such a question never will be answered in unanimity.

Rawls tried an old parlor trick of introducing a hypothetical thought-experiment through which he later would introduce his ideas for a “nicer” method of coerced wealth redistribution. He called this concept the original position and the veil of ignorance.

His hypothetical original position is that everybody starts out not knowing their eventual position and status in society. Nobody knows how rich they will be, how smart, or what opportunities might prevail. From this original position, Rawls then introduced his veil of ignorance behind which everybody must decide on the principles and rules that will guide human action once the veil is lifted.

As an analogy, Rawls described the idea of cutting and sharing a cake. The individual cutting the cake is required to select a cut piece only after all others have selected their piece. The inferred solution is the cutter will cut all pieces equally to ensure an equitable piece. A problem with the analogy is that the system parameters are rigged thereby reducing the available options. In the field of logic this is known as a false dilemma. This same fallacy is why polls often are rigged to produce a specific outcome. Simply control the options available and one also controls the outcome.

Rawls’s cake-cutting analogy changes quickly by modifying the system parameters. Introduce more than one cake, or accept that not all participants enjoy cake, or that some do not want cake. Some participants might like cake, but perhaps they are on a diet and choose not to eat. Perhaps for other health reasons they simply are not allowed to eat cake. Rawls’s analogy dies quickly. There is no such thing as equal distribution and this analogy assumes that the desired result is equal distribution.

Additionally, Rawls did not address another social system characteristic — ownership. Who owns the cake? If I own the resources to baking that cake, then I get to decide how the cake is cut and who gets to share the cake with me. I might decide to eat the entire cake all by myself.

Rawls’s original position and veil of ignorance fails for other reasons. All humans are self-interested. There is no escaping this in-born characteristic of all living creatures. The degree in which each human decides to exercise that attribute depends upon each individual, but everybody possesses the desire to serve self. No living creature survives for long by ignoring this instinct. Thus, even behind a veil of ignorance, people will try to create a system that they can manipulate, despite the facade of trying to create a system that might originally seem equitable to all. Rawls assumed that while behind this veil humans will ignore their thinking skills and ignore their will to preserve self. Rawls’s veil of ignorance requires that very human possess no information or experience about how the processes of exchange and cooperative living actually work. Rawls wanted people to be blissfully ignorant about human nature. Although not explicitly mentioned, Rawls’s veil idea unrealistically requires everyone to possess nothing, never having had experienced ownership, and never having had experienced anything in life.

Additionally, once the veil is lifted, many people immediately will begin the process of changing the rules and circumventing the original plan. History reveals this is exactly what happens. Take a look at the American, French, and Russian systems created from their respective revolutions. All began from an altruistic cornerstone but each system was corrupted easily.

Rawls also assumed that those people whom he thought were on the losing end of unequal redistribution never have the ability to reconcile the situation. History is full of Horatio Alger stories that discredit this assumption.

Rawls’s hypothetical starting point fails because the entire concept is unrealistic. At no time in history have humans done anything other than pursue their own self interests. From the moment a human is born each person thinks about self and survival. No human is capable of standing behind a veil of ignorance. The idea is impossible.

This is the same problem with the “state of nature” concept used by Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. There never has been any thing in human history that resembled a “state of nature.” Never happened. At birth humans are so utterly dependent upon other humans that they always have been social creatures. Humans are not self-sufficient and never have been. Thus, cooperation and not destructive competition tends to be the norm. Humans become anti-social only when confronted with various forms of trespass. To introduce a hypothetical concept such as the “state of nature” or original position behind a veil of ignorance is nothing but misdirected energy. Why not instead develop realistic social system models? Granted, Rawls admitted that a concept such as his original position never existed, but at that point in the book a reader should pause and wonder why one should bother with a hypothetical that has no basis in reality?

A primary problem with why so much conflict exists today is the concept of coercive wealth redistribution. Regardless of how that process is cloaked in theory, philosophy, or masked under the color of law, most people realize that any coercive redistribution is nothing but theft — a form of trespass. Thus, Rawls’s discussion is merely another extension of the problem and not a solution. Rawls tried only to modify the methods of coercive redistribution rather than attack the disease itself. For thousands of years humans have worked together cooperatively to improve life. An appropriate question is not how to force cooperation or equal distribution of resources, but how and why do a minority of people hoodwink the majority into believing that coercive redistribution is the only acceptable solution?

Uneven wealth distribution always will exist for a simple reason — everybody has a different concept of what defines their pursuit of happiness. Equal distribution is and always will be impossible. Reducing conflict will occur more quickly by removing the illusions and false doctrines through which coercive redistribution occurs. Only when people are no longer ignorant about these processes can they hope to avoid them.

This is not an easy book to read, especially if one is experienced in identifying various flaws of debate and discussion. Identify early the flaws of Rawls’s theory and the book then is no longer a classic or important book about social philosophy. Rawls ignored basic human nature, assumed that everyone would embrace his veil of ignorance approach, and “rationally” select a better system. Within the narrow boundaries of the deceptive doctrine of coerced wealth redistribution, that is, “distributive justice,” Rawls’s thesis might provide some people fodder for discussion. Destroy that assumption and the book is little more than another ivory tower polemic with no basis in reality. Rawls’s thesis is self-contained entirely within the boundaries of statism. If you accept statism then you might enjoy his discussion. If you reject statism then you already have mastered Rawls’s book. Rawls did at least raise some valid questions concerning the philosophy of utilitarianism, but don’t bother reading this book unless required in a school environment. And even then, rip the thesis to shreds.

Finis.

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