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John Rawls and Market Anarchy

Politics / Economic Theory Mar 13, 2014 - 01:56 PM GMT

By: David_Gordon


Gary Chartier in this impressive book has put readers doubly in his debt. Chartier strikes at the heart of the vastly influential political philosophy of John Rawls. Libertarians can only applaud him for this, but we have even more reason to be grateful to Chartier. Having neatly dispatched Rawls, Chartier goes on to offer a strong defense of market anarchy.

There is, I fear, a problem with what I have just said. Chartier would not agree with my description of what he has accomplished. Although, as he tells us,“I am not a Rawlsian,” (p. x) he does not aim to refute Rawls. To the contrary, he aims to show that Rawls’s system, suitably modified, leads to market anarchy. I do not think that he succeeds in showing this; but it is in his attempt to do so that he in fact refutes Rawls.

What is the essence of Rawls’s distinctive approach? Rawls leaves his readers in little doubt. Near the beginning of A Theory of Justice, he says:

Let us assume, to fix ideas, that a society is a more or less self-sufficient association of persons who in their conduct recognize certain rules of conduct as binding. ... Suppose further these rules specify a system of cooperation designed to advance the good of those taking part of it. Then, although a society is a cooperative venture for mutual advantage, it is typically marked by a conflict as well as an identity of interests. ... A set of principles is required for choosing among the various social arrangements which determine this division of advantages and for underwriting an agreement on the division of the proper distributive shares.[2]

Rawls has set his problem. What is his solution? Again, he offers a clear answer: The principles are those that

free and rational persons concerned to further their own interests would accept in an initial position of equality as defining the fundamental terms of their association. ... Once we decide to look for a conception of justice that nullifies the accidents of natural endowment and the contingencies of social circumstance as counters in quest for political and economic advantage, we are led to these principles.[3]

In sum, those in Rawls’s social contract view themselves as bound together equally in a common enterprise. Readers will not fail to note here echoes of Rousseau; and the great sociologist Robert Nisbet was among the first critics to stress this influence, as Chartier rightly notes. (p.172, note 110)

Chartier resolutely rejects this view of society, and it is in doing so that he undermines Rawls’s system. In a brilliant passage, he says:

On the standard Rawlsian view, individual deliberators at the domestic level would treat the goods and services generated in their society as shared products of their efforts and so as theirs to distribute. ... The characterization of a society as a cooperative venture for mutual advantage seems to imply that the society has some sort of collective identity. Instead, a society may be seen as the sum total of a vast number of cooperative interactions, including a variety of interlinked ventures. We can speak of a general pattern in accordance with which social cooperation leads to mutual advantage; but that’s quite different from a social contract in which people agree to engage in a shared enterprise and determine how best to divide the proceeds of the enterprise. A society is not an enterprise. (pp.144-45)

When Chartier says “a society is not an enterprise,” I take him to be making an ethical claim rather than a purely factual judgment. We should not conceive society as an enterprise. To talk of people as a collective that “distributes” liberty and property among its members is inimical to what Chartier in a fine phrase calls the “architectonic liberties,” the fundamental freedoms most essential to each person’s life. “A fairly straightforward way of doing this [making possible people’s pursuit of their projects] would be to preclude nonremedial interference with the architectonic basic liberties — protections for bodily integrity and property (both personal and productive).” (p. 95)

But now a problem demands our attention. If Chartier has rejected the key assumption in Rawls’s theory, why does he present himself as ��radicalizing” Rawls instead of abandoning him? Why does he think that it is possible to remain within Rawls’s framework, in a way that does not accept the notion of society as a collective enterprise?[4]

Chartier’s answer is simple. He replaces Rawls’s collectivism with his own individualist views. People who imagined themselves to be deliberating in the original position, he suggests, would choose market anarchy, given the strength of the arguments for that position.

Chartier has excellent arguments for market anarchy, but without the assumption of an equal division of the gains from social cooperation, no distinct Rawlsian theory of justice is left. One can speak, if one likes, of an “original position,” which involves choice behind a “veil of ignorance”; but these phrases do not by themselves suffice to constitute a moral theory. As Chartier uses these expressions, they mean little more than “choice as a result of careful consideration, after trying to eliminate personal bias.” It is surely desirable to think about moral issues in this way, but doing so does not make one a follower of Rawls.

An example will illustrate what is at issue. After he presents a penetrating criticism of the state, which we shall soon examine, Chartier says that Rawlsian deliberators in the original position “would have excellent reason to take account” of the points about the state which he makes. (p. 141) Here to invoke the original position adds nothing: all that Chartier is really saying is that Rawlsians, like other people thinking clearly, ought to be critical of the state.[5]

About this he is clearly right. He points out that “states are inherently very dangerous. The war making in which they have persistently engaged and to which their taxing power and their leaders’ desire for glory and public acclaim render them exceptionally prone, is a particularly good example. But the tendency of the state to constitute and serve the interests of an exploitative ruling class provides a further reason to avoid creating, supporting, or maintaining it.” (p.140)

Chartier offers an exceptionally insightful discussion of why military intervention by states, even intervention that ostensibly aims to defend human rights, is likely to have untoward consequences:

“It frequently and predictably involves the violation of just war constraints on harm to both noncombatants and combatants. ... There are also systemic reasons to favor general prohibitions on states’ engagement in military conflicts not involving the defense of their own territories. Such conflicts are predictably associated with human rights violations ... they breed resentment that can lead to further violence. They are profoundly, uncontrollably, wastefully expensive. ... Wars also lead frequently to the implementation of repressive measures, including censorship, propaganda, torture, surveillance, and due process violations of various kinds — which are all too likely to persist after war’s official end. (p. 107)

Chartier has written a book of outstanding merit. Radicalizing Rawls confirms his place as one of the best political philosophers of our time.


[1] I ought to say that I sent Professor Chartier comments on the manuscript of this book, as he kindly acknowledges.

[2] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971), p. 4.

[3] Ibid., pp. 11, 15.

[4] To reiterate, I do not mean that Chartier himself is a radicalized Rawlsian, in his sense. He is not but thinks that Rawlsians should modify their views in the way he suggests and that they can do so and yet remain Rawlsians.

[5] With much injustice to Chartier, I shall confine to a note comment on one of the book’s principal themes. Chartier argues that Rawls in The Law of Peoples wrongly confines the scope of justice to particular societies. Instead, justice should be “cosmopolitan,” applying throughout the world. Chartier inquires: do not all human beings possess the two moral powers, the basis for equality as Rawls conceives of it, not just those in particular societies? Indeed they do, and Rawls says so; (see, e.g., Theory of Justice, pp. 504ff.) but people are not morally required to enlist in a collective enterprise with everyone who qualifies as a human being. One could imagine everyone in the world engaging in such an enterprise, but no moral imperative in Rawls’s view requires this. Again, Chartier underestimates the key place of engagement by a particular group in a common enterprise: without this, there is no distinct Rawlsian theory.

David Gordon covers new books in economics, politics, philosophy, and law for The Mises Review, the quarterly review of literature in the social sciences, published since 1995 by the Mises Institute. He is author of The Essential Rothbard, available in the Mises Store. Send him mail. See his article archives. Comment on the blog.

[At the Brink: Will Obama Push Us Over the Edge? By John R, Lott, Jr. Regnery, 2013. Xvi + 320 pages. Book review by David Gordon.]

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