To Fight Inequality, America Needs to Rethink Its Economic Model

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By Daniel Chandler at Time: The publication of Rawls’s magnum opus A Theory of Justice in 1971 marks a watershed moment in the history of political thought, drawing favourable comparisons to the likes of John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, even Plato. Rawls’s most famous idea is a thought experiment called the “original position.” If we want to know what a fair society would look like, he argued, we should imagine how we would choose to organize it if we didn’t know what our individual position would be—rich or poor, Black or white, Christian of Muslim— as if behind a “veil of ignorance.”

Our first priority would be to secure a set of “basic liberties,” such as free speech and the right to vote, that are the basis for individual freedom and civic equality.

When it comes to the economy, we would want “fair equality of opportunity,” and we would tolerate a degree of inequality so that people have incentives to work hard and innovate, making society richer overall. But rather than assuming that the benefits would trickle down to those at the bottom, Rawls argued that we would want to organize our economy so that the least well-off would be better off than under any alternative system—a concept he called the “difference principle.”

This principle has often been interpreted as justifying a fairly conventional strategy of taxing the rich and redistributing to the poor. But Rawls explicitly rejected “welfare state capitalism” in favour of what he called a “property-owning democracy.” Rather than simply topping up the incomes of the least well off, society should “put in the hands of citizens generally, and not only of a few, sufficient productive means for them to be fully cooperating members of society.”

More here.

Chandler is an economist and philosopher based at the London School of Economics, and author or Free and Equal: A Manifesto for a Just Society.