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Sunday, March 19, 2006

Tyler Cowen and Brad DeLong gang up on John Rawls.

They don't like maximin. John Rawls repudiated maximin in 1982 and Brad was there.
I don't know if John Rawls is a great moral philosopher but I do know that John Bound is a better one. Rawls was, however, much more eager to present his views to an audience as I recall.

Maximin is a principle for the just distribution of primary goods which aren't just like money but that's a helpful approximate translation into normal English.

In his book "A Theory of Justice" Rawls argued that a just society will make choices so as to maximize the amount of primary goods which the poorest people in the socieity have. In a sense it is the most extreme degree of egalitarianism consistent with basic liberal principles (although there may be a utilitarian for even more extreme egalitarianism).

I am not a big fan of maximin either. I do think it is important to note (as you do) that Rawls objected to Musgrave's making too big a deal of choice under the veil of ignorance.

IIRC the rephrased actually brief and clear explanation in his comment was as follows.

1. A just society is a society which could be formed by a social contract among equals (hence in the original position which is indeed under the veil)

2. No one better have crossed their fingers back in the original position. Semi seriously, a true contract must be made in good faith.

3. Good faith implies the intention to abide by the contract. Otherwise it is a fraud not a contract.

4. Intention to abide by the contract means intention to abide by it certainly with probability one always without exceptions. As Rawls put it the contract must be accepted without reservations, that is, each person under the veil must imagine what is expected of him or her under the contract and think "yes I could stand that. I could obey the contract even if it meant that I had to accept poverty." If someone thinks OK I will accept property rights and free markets sure. If I end up with so little income that I would starve ... well then I will steal. No go Rawls would say. People couldn't honestly agree to a contract as proposed by my good friend Robert (Nozick that is). To Rawls it is just as clear that the max the utils contract is no good.

John Bound asked John Rawls.

But wouldn't your condition on just social contracts be consistent with a contract in which there was some minimum amount of primary goods which must be guaranteed to everyone if it can be and that once it has been guaranteed we can distribute what's left in order to maximize the sum of utils.

John Rawls said yes.

He didn't think much of maximin either.

We were both in the room.

Note for people who aren't Brad DeLong.

John Bound had been assigned to lead a 90 minute discussion on Rawls. I have no doubt that he had thought of the argument against maximin which Rawls found convincing. I deduce this from some knowledge of him and his effort to lead the 90 minute discussion which IIRC consisted of the following.

John Bound said

"When I read "A Theory of Justice" in the '60s I thought that Rawls had proven his claims. Re reading it I didn't think he had."

yep that's it. Minor details like the argument about an unacceptable-poverty line and then utilitarianism if no one is in un-acceptable poverty were left out of his discussion, because, back then at least, John Bound didn't know how thoroughly he has to explain things to make them clear.

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