Deirdre McCloskey summarises Rawls and Nozick on unequal incomes


Source: Review of Michael J. Sandel’s What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limit of Markets by Deirdre McCloskey August 1, 2012. Shorter version published in the Claremont Review of Books XII(4), Fall 2012 via Deirdre McCloskey: editorials.

John Rawls and Robert Nozick could not agree more the fundamentals of liberalism

Unexpected kind word for Parliament House protesters @GreenpeaceNZ @RusselNorman @NZGreens @greencatherine

The Greenpeace vandals who trespassed at Parliament, climbing up to put signs down the front in flagrant disregard of the most ample possible options for peaceful protest right outside at least had the integrity to plead guilty. That shows some sort of fidelity to law and an acknowledgement that what they did was a criminal offence.

John Rawls makes the point that the purpose of civil disobedience is not to impose your will upon others but through your protest to implore them to reconsider their position and change the law or policy you are disputing.

Rawls argues that civil disobedience is never covert or secretive; it is only ever committed in public, openly, and with fair notice to legal authorities. Openness and publicity, even at the cost of having one’s protest frustrated, offers ways for the protesters to show their willingness to deal fairly with authorities. Rawls argues:

  • for a public, non-violent, conscientious yet political act contrary to law being done (usually) with the aim of bringing about a change in the law or policies of the government;
  • that appeals to the sense of justice of the majority;
  • which may be direct or indirect;
  • within the bounds of fidelity to the law; and
  • whose protesters are willing to accept punishment. Although civil disobedience involves breaking the law, it is for moral rather than selfish reasons; the willingness to accept arrest is proof of the integrity of the act.

Rawls argues, and too many forget, that civil disobedience and dissent more generally contribute to the democratic exchange of ideas by forcing the champions of dominant opinion to defend their views.

Legitimate non-violent direct action are publicity stunts to gain attention and provoke debate within the democratic framework, where we resolve our differences by trying to persuade each other and convince the electorate.

Too many acts of non-violent direct action aim to impose their will on others rather than peaceful protests designed to bring about democratic change in the laws or policies of the incumbent government. That ‘might does not make right’ is fundamental to the rule of law. As United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said

The virtue of a democratic system [with a constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech] is that it readily enables the people, over time, to be persuaded that what they took for granted is not so and to change their laws accordingly..

Both sides passionately but respectfully attempt to persuade their fellow citizens to accept their views. Win or lose, advocates for today’s losing causes can continued pressing their cases, secure in the knowledge that an electoral loss today can be negated by a later electoral win, which is democracy in action as Justice Kennedy explains:

…a democracy has the capacity—and the duty—to learn from its past mistakes; to discover and confront persisting biases; and by respectful, rationale deliberation to rise above those flaws and injustices…

It is demeaning to the democratic process to presume that the voters are not capable of deciding an issue of this sensitivity on decent and rational grounds.

The process of public discourse and political debate should not be foreclosed even if there is a risk that during a public campaign there will be those, on both sides, who seek to use racial division and discord to their own political advantage. An informed public can, and must, rise above this. The idea of democracy is that it can, and must, mature.

Freedom embraces the right, indeed the duty, to engage in a rational, civic discourse in order to determine how best to form a consensus to shape the destiny of the Nation and its people. These First Amendment dynamics would be disserved if this Court were to say that the question here at issue is beyond the capacity of the voters to debate and then to determine.

John Rawls’ view that fidelity to law and democratic change through trying to persuade each other is at the heart of civil disobedience reflects the difference between the liberal and the left-wing on democracy and social change as Jonathan Chait observed this week:

Liberals treat political rights as sacrosanct. The left treats social and economic justice as sacrosanct. The liberal vision of political rights requires being neutral about substance.

To the left, this neutrality is a mere guise for maintaining existing privilege; debates about “rights” can only be resolved by defining which side represents the privileged class and which side represents the oppressed…

Liberals believe that social justice can be advanced without giving up democratic rights and norms. The ends of social justice do not justify any and all means.

John Rawls & The Principles of Justice

Would the reckless maritime protests of @Greenpeace be tolerated on land?

Were the Greenpeace runabouts observing maritime safety rules such as avoiding collisions and giving way? Any protester that behaved like that in a car would be immediately arrested and charged.

Why it is tolerated in the high seas is beyond me when it would never be tolerated on the road. No one would pretend reckless driving was peaceful protest. Is it okay to behave recklessly in a boat? No one would accept that in a car on land.

Central to the notion of peaceful protest is fidelity to democracy and the rule of law. The idea is not to impose your will upon others, but to persuade the majority to reconsider their position by showing the passionate extent to which you disagree with them and honestly believe they are mistaken.

The civil disobedient is attempting to appeal to the “sense of justice” of the majority and a willingness to accept arrest is proof of the integrity of the act says Rawls:

…any interference with the civil liberties of others tends to obscure the civilly disobedient quality of one’s act.

Rawls argues that the use or threat of violence is incompatible with a reasoned appeal to fellow citizens to move them to change a law. The actions are not a means of coercing or frightening others into conforming to one’s wishes. That is a breach of the principles of a just society.

Listen to John Rawls’ Course on “Modern Political Philosophy” 1984


John Rawls on tolerating the intolerant


Moving Brad DeLong’s Time Machine behind John Rawls’ veil of ignorance

Brad DeLong set up a thought experiment to work out if we were better off than in the good old days. He asked how much money would you want to take with you if you had to step into a time machine to go back to some specific point in time and not be worse off for the trip in living standards and life expectancy. He was writing in 1995, talking about going back to 1895.

John Rawls asks a similar question by saying what type of society would you to agree to in a social contract if you’re behind a veil of ignorance. You didn’t know where you were going to be in society behind the veil of ignorance.

All you know you is you will be some random member of that society, at the top, bottom or somewhere in between.

…no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like.

What social institutions would you agree in that society given you don’t know where you will be in it?

John Rawls also said that the society was fair if you didn’t mind showing up somewhere in it as a random member.

Let’s suppose a thought experiment which combines a time machine with a veil of ignorance:

  • Alien proctologists from outer space take time off from kidnapping rednecks at closing time at pubs to kidnap you instead;
  • After probing your nether regions, but before flying off to light years away where they came from without any further earthly contact they offer you the option of beaming back to where you came from but with a twist in time;
  • You can beam back to be a random member of your current society or a random member of a society in the past of your choice; but
  • Random reassignment to either the present or a past of your choosing are your only options as the alien kidnap victim.

Behind that inter-temporal veil of ignorance, would you choose to be a random member of your own society or prefer to beam back in time to before the ravages of neoliberalism destroyed the good old days?

Apparently, we not a cent better off compared to the 70s because all the income gains, every single cent, went into the pockets of the top 10%, if Senator Warren is to be believed in her recent Washington post op-ed:


When you line up by Senator Warren to go into the time machine, remember to leave your iPhones and air points at the door.

John Rawls on the limits of inequality


John Rawls defines a just society


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