Hayek v. Rawls on Social Justice: Correcting the False Narrative

Matt Yglesias, citing an article (“John Rawls, Socialist?“) by Ed Quish in the Jacobin arguing that Rawls, in his later years, drifted from his welfare-state liberalism to democratic socialism, tweeted a little while ago

I’m an admirer of, but no expert on, Rawls, so I won’t weigh in on where to pigeon-hole Rawls on the ideological spectrum. In general, I think such pigeon-holing is as likely to mislead as to clarify because it tends to obscure the individuality of the individual or thinker being pigeon-hold. Rawls was above all a Rawlsian and to reduce his complex and nuanced philosophy to simple catch-phrase like “socialism” or even “welfare-state liberalism” cannot possibly do his rich philosophical contributions justice (no pun intended).

A good way to illustrate both the complexity of Rawls’s philosophy and that of someone like F. A. Hayek, often regarded as standing on the opposite end of the philosophical spectrum from Rawls, is to quote from two passages of volume 2 of Law, Legislation and Liberty. Hayek entitled this volume The Mirage of Social Justice, and the main thesis of that volume is that the term “justice” is meaningful only in the context of the foreseen or foreseable consequences of deliberate decisions taken by responsible individual agents. Social justice, because it refers to the outcomes of complex social processes that no one is deliberately aiming at, is not a meaningful concept.

Because Rawls argued in favor of the difference principle, which says that unequal outcomes are only justifiable insofar as they promote the absolute (though not the relative) well-being of the least well-off individuals in society, most libertarians, including famously Robert Nozick whose book Anarchy, State and Utopia was a kind of rejoinder to Rawls’s book A Theory of Justice, viewed Rawls as an ideological opponent.

Hayek, however, had a very different take on Rawls. At the end of his preface to volume 2, explaining why he had not discussed various recent philosophical contributions on the subject of social justice, Hayek wrote:

[A]fter careful consideration I have come to the conclusion that what I might have to say about John Rawls’ A theory of Justice would not assist in the pursuit of my immediate object because the differences between us seemed more verbal than substantial. Though the first impression of readers may be different, Rawls’ statement which I quote later in this volume (p. 100) seems to me to show that we agree on what is to me the essential point. Indeed, as I indicate in a note to that passage, it appears to me that Rawls has been widely misunderstood on this central issue. (pp. xii-xiii)

Here is what Hayek says about Rawls in the cited passage.

Before leaving this subject I want to point out once more that the recognition that in such combinations as “social”, “economic”, “distributive”, or “retributive” justice the term “justice” is wholly empty should not lead us to throw the baby out with the bath water. Not only as the basis of the legal rules of just conduct is the justice which the courts of justice administer exceedingly important; there unquestionably also exists a genuine problem of justice in connection with the deliberate design of political institutions the problem to which Professor John Rawls has recently devoted an important book. The fact which I regret and regard as confusing is merely that in this connection he employs the term “social justice”. But I have no basic quarrel with an author who, before he proceeds to that problem, acknowledges that the task of selecting specific systems or distributions of desired things as just must be abandoned as mistaken in principle and it is, in any case, not capable of a definite answer. Rather, the principles of justice define the crucial constraints which institutions and joint activities must satisfy if persons engaging in them are to have no complaints against them. If these constraints are satisfied, the resulting distribution, whatever it is, may be accepted as just (or at least not unjust).” This is more or less what I have been trying to argue in this chapter.

In the footnote at the end of the quotation, Hayek cites the source from which he takes the quotation and then continues:

John Rawls, “Constitutional Liberty and the Concept of Justice,” Nomos IV, Justice (New York, 1963), p. 102. where the passage quoted is preceded by the statement that “It is the system of institutions which has to be judged and judged from a general point of view.” I am not aware that Professor Rawls’ later more widely read work A Theory of Justice contains a comparatively clear statement of the main point, which may explain why this work seems often, but as it  appears to me wrongly, to have been interpreted as lending support to socialist demands, e.g., by Daniel Bell, “On Meritocracy and Equality”, Public Interest, Autumn 1972, p. 72, who describes Rawls’ theory as “the most comprehensive effort in modern philosophy to justify a socialist ethic.”


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About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

I am an economist in the Washington DC area. My research and writing has been mostly on monetary economics and policy and the history of economics. In my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform, I argued for a non-Monetarist non-Keynesian approach to monetary policy, based on a theory of a competitive supply of money. Over the years, I have become increasingly impressed by the similarities between my approach and that of R. G. Hawtrey and hope to bring Hawtrey's unduly neglected contributions to the attention of a wider audience.


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