Egalitarian Liberalism

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By Matt McManus:

"The original egalitarian liberal is John Rawls, widely acclaimed as the most famous political theorist of the twentieth century. In his seminal book A Theory of Justice, published in 1971, Rawls enacted a transformative shift in the way liberals understand individualism and individual merit. Prior to Rawls, the classical liberal argument for meritocracy was already being complicated by Utilitarians, who argued that society should focus on maximizing the welfare of each person. This might mean adopting robust redistributive policies, such as those found in an advanced welfare state. But the Utilitarian argument for redistribution was based on the idea of maximizing aggregate pleasure. It “did not take seriously the differences” between people as Rawls observed, and the classical liberals would agree. The latter would argue that redistributive policies were unjust because they effaced differences in effort and individual merit. Rawls took a different view. He argued from a liberal standpoint that individual merit was a deeply ambiguous and heavily mythologized principle which discriminated against disadvantaged individuals for “morally arbitrary reasons” which had little to do with merit. Therefore a ‘fair’ liberal society would adopt robust redistributive policies to compensate for the moral arbitrariness in the distribution of goods.

Rawls raises two arguments for this position. The first is an argument derived from what he termed the “Original Position.” Summarizing very briefly, Rawls asks us to imagine what hypothetical society an impartial individual would feel safe entering if they were unaware who they would be in that society and what kind of distributive principles would orient it. Such impartial individuals, behind what he termed a “veil of ignorance,” would not know if they would end up a Doctor catering to wealthy patients in Manhattan or a cashier working at Wal-Mart in Mississippi. Rawls argued that individuals would not feel safe entering into a society oriented by the meritocratic principle, because they were far more likely to wind up swiping groceries over a scanner for minimum wage and few benefits than discussing the latest issue of the American Journal of Medicine over martinis. Therefore, an impartial person who had to decide what kind of society he would feel safe entering would want a more egalitarian principle orienting the distribution of goods. This would guarantee that if he did wind up working as the Wal-Mart cashier he would still have enough to get by.

This first argument of Rawls’s is quite controversial, even to those—myself included—who are sympathetic to his overall position. Many have observed that he seems to assume impartial individuals would be deeply cautious and unwilling to gamble that they would wind up as a rich Doctor paying low taxes. But the first argument isn’t especially germane here. Rawls’s more powerful argument is a purely moral one: the argument from moral arbitrariness.

Rawls observes that when one looks closely at many of the reasons people get ahead, very few of them actually have to do with their individual moral merit. Most individuals get ahead for reasons that are “arbitrary from a moral point of view.” But, as Rawls observes, this is antithetical to liberal individualism. If many individuals get ahead for reasons that are arbitrary from a moral point of view, this means that those left behind are not there through any fault of their own. They were left behind for reasons that are similarly arbitrary. For Rawls this is deeply unfair from a liberal standpoint, since one of fundamental beliefs of liberalism is that arbitrary hierarchies that enable some to get ahead are unjustifiable.

This is where Rawls gets truly radical. Simplifying somewhat, Rawls observes that there are effectively two sets of morally arbitrary advantages which enable some individuals to get ahead for reasons that cannot be justified from a liberal standpoint. The first set are social advantages. The second set are natural advantages, such as genetic talents. We will discuss both in some detail.

Social advantages are those which individuals enjoy due to the persistence of arbitrary political, institutional, cultural, and economic hierarchies which benefit some over others. Social advantages can include everything from getting to go to elite private schools because one’s parents are rich, to being read to as a child where others are placed in front of a television set. In both of these cases, and many others, individuals are given social advantages which give them a head start in the race for position and resources. These have nothing to do with merit since no individual can claim credit for these social advantages. If one’s parents are wealthy enough to send their child to the Phillips’s Academy for $41,900 a year, the advantages the child accrues have nothing to do with their relative merit. The inverse is true for the disadvantaged. Is it the fault of a 10 year-old in Flint that their studying might impeded by a lack of safe drinking water at their underfunded school? Subsequently, is it entirely as a result of merit that the former child acquires an A+ average before his parents shell out $46,000 a year for Harvard University, while the latter child ends up a B student taking out significant loans to go to community college? These narratives are hardly unrepresentative. In a 2010 study, Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl’s observed that only 14 percent of undergraduates at elite colleges come from families at the bottom half of the income hierarchy. There seems to be little way of justifying these inequities along meritocratic lines.

Some more centrist classical liberals respond to such claims by softening their position. They agree to redistributive policies necessary to ameliorate unearned advantages and provide opportunities to those who were socially unlucky. Peterson himself has made this point recently, calling rampant income inequality a problem. But modern classical liberals argue that these policies should only go so far. Once morally arbitrary social advantages are ameliorated, the inequalities which would then emerge as a result of individual’s natural advantages and talents shouldn’t be interfered with. But this is where Rawls brings up his arguments about the second set of reasons individuals get ahead for morally arbitrary reasons. This has to do with the morally arbitrary distribution of natural advantages.

Natural advantages are those which individuals enjoy at birth due to fortunate genetic heritage and other scientifically determined circumstances. They can include advantages like being born with a higher IQ than average, being born with an exceptionally healthy immune system, or a capacity to achieve at a high level of academic ability. In none of these cases can individuals claim that they merited being born intrinsically smarter, healthier, or stronger, than others. The inverse is true for those who may have been born with a low IQ, with a significant physical disability, or a tendency to be small and frail. This is a problem for the meritocratic conception. Since natural advantages are distributed in a way that is morally arbitrary, the achievements and goods of those who enjoy them are not entirely merited. A naturally handsome, healthy, highly intelligent man enjoys a significant and unearned edge over a less attractive, sickly man with a lower than average intelligence.

Now critics may claim that natural advantages don’t mean much in themselves. They may remain undeveloped if a person doesn’t commit the effort needed to refine them. But as Rawls observes, even a tendency to commit effort depends in part on fortunate natural (and social) factors. Healthy individuals brought up in a family which values work and achievement are more likely to commit effort to developing their natural advantages relative to individuals suffering from inherited and acute depression who are growing up in dysfunctional families. Finally, having natural advantages and talents worth developing depends a great deal on what society chooses to value. A ‘talent’ is only such because others decide to ascribe it significance. An individual with an acute talent at chess can only profit from it when they are born in a social setting where such an ability is valued. The same is true of an individual with a genetic propensity to develop the talents needed to achieve greatness in American football. These talents would not be as meaningful in societies that didn’t care about chess or football. So individuals who posses such talents are fortunate again to be born in the right place at the right time. They cannot take credit for such fortune. A just society would therefore attempt to ameliorate the consequences which arise from the distribution in natural talents, and not cop out by claiming that nature is simply unconcerned with fairness." (