Sunday, July 31, 2016

Time to ditch Rawls?



The seminal work in political philosophy for the era of globalization is John Rawls’ “The law of peoples” (LoP). It was written in 1999. I was attracted to it in the early 2000s as I was then already working on global inequality which was a totally new topic, entirely ignored, in economics. The only thing that came remotely close to it in economics was the Heckschler-Ohlin-Samuelson trade theorem whereby wage inequality should go down in poor countries and up in rich countries when they engage in trade. But this was such a small part of globalizations: it dealt with wages only and left out other types of income; it left out capital flows, development aid, migration, outsourcing. None of that was discussed in economics (and mostly still is not) in a global framework as opposed to 2-country 2-goods very limiting framework. But political philosophers have thought more about it.

In the late 1990s, John Rawls turned his attention from how a single nation-state should be organized (as in his Theory of Justice, ToJ) to how the world should be organized. Obviously, it had to be done at a very abstract level and, as will be seen, that abstract level comes very close to the situation Rawls (and the world) seemed to face in the 1990s. But, and it will be my key point here, that situation has dramatically changed in the past 20 years so that the abstract sketch of the world made by Rawls is no longer  compatible with what we see today and thus the recommendations Rawls drew from that sketch are irrelevant.

In LoP, Rawls abandoned the metaphor of individuals meeting behind the veil of ignorance to agree on an a priori basis on the principles of justice in their societies. That rule still holds, according to Rawls, in individual societies but not in the world of nation-states whose representatives (but not individuals themselves) meet to agree on the principles that would guide their (inter-societal) relations. 

Rawls has five types of societies:  liberal (these are the same societies with which his ToJ is concerned), consultative hierarchical societies, “burdened” societies, outlaw states (notice: not societies) and benevolent absolutisms. We can drop the last because they never play a role in LoP (I never understood why; perhaps Rawls just did not know what to do with them). Both liberal and consultative hierarchical societies are well-ordered societies (meaning that within each of them the principle upon which they are based are reinforced by peoples’ daily actions); they respect each other and the (different) principles upon which each is based. Burdened societies cannot become liberal because they are held back by their poverty. Outlaw states just go to war (for basically no reason; they just, like in a Hollywood movie, seem to like being troublemakers).  

So the rules then become relatively simple—and some would even say simplistic. The well-ordered societies, though different in their internal structure, can coexist at peace because they respect each other, and liberal societies do not try to impose their norms on consultative hierarchies. They do not try to export democracy. 

Second, liberal societies have a duty to help the burdened societies but only as far as they require to become liberal, which, in Rawls’ view, takes place at a very low average level of income. After that point, even huge differences in incomes within the group of well-ordered societies are no ground for continuation of international aid. In other words, there is no reason for Norway to help Bangladesh because they are both well-ordered. 

Finally, Rawls is against migration as a right or against migration as a way to alleviate global poverty and inequality. Countries (that is, organized peoples) have control of their territory and they alone decide whom they want to accept. They can accept refuges that flee persecution but not economic migrants (which is by the way consistent with Rawls’ general underplaying of the importance of income for our happiness).

So, this is the sketch: liberal societies reaffirm their liberal principles daily, they live in peace with hierarchical societies, the do not export democracy, they help only the poorest countries and this very moderately, and they do not allow economic migration. 

As you can see, this is why I was attracted to Rawls: unlike economists he does present a coherent sketch of the world and economic rules.

So why do I have a problem with Rawls’ taxonomy now?

Let me list several changes that have happened during the past two decades and for which I just do not find a place in Rawls’ taxonomy.

Liberal democracies do not affirm the principles of liberalism, as Rawls expected, neither domestically nor internationally. It is inconceivable for Rawls, if these societies would be working well, that they would, as in the US now, generate a third or more of “malcontent” population that clearly does not believe in liberal principles nor is willing to affirm them in their daily lives. Far from it. This, plus the pervasive role of money in electoral politics, lower tax rates for capital than labor, neglect of public education etc. imply that domestically so called liberal societies are very far from Rawls’ idea of liberalism. The difference is so great that we cannot, I think, speak of the discrepancy any longer as the expected difference between an abstract idea and what exist in reality. These societies belong to an entirely different category.

Moreover, in foreign policy, as became clear with the Iraq war, they act like outlaw states since they break the fundamental rules on which the international community is founded, namely absence of wars of aggression.

Thus, “liberal” societies are both non-liberal (in the Rawlsian sense) domestically and act as outlaw states.

The benign consultative hierarchies that Rawls had in mind probably in order to fit Islamic societies in his scheme are practically non-existent.  The Middle East is either in total chaos or in the grip of absolutist dictatorships like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf sheikdoms.  Thus they are not well-ordered societies in Rawls’ terms.

There is no place in his taxonomy for the multi-county non-state organizations like ISIS. A general theory that has no place for organizations that do not accept current state borders is clearly incomplete. (This is an issue on which Rawls is especially weak because he takes borders as given, which is, as he wrote in the wake of the break-up of the USSR, Czechoslovakia, Ethiopia and Yugoslavia, rather odd).

There is also no place for what is now called illiberal democracy, namely a society that has most of the accoutrements of a liberal society (elections, political parties, NGOs), and yet where only one party or one leader ever wins elections and where the media and the judiciary are directly or indirectly controlled.

Migrations, driven by economic reasons and thus by global inequality, does not have a place in Rawls. But they do exist in real life where economic migrants from Africa and Asia into Europe or Mexico and Central America into the United States number millions. But the theory that says that this should not happen is of no use when these things do happen.

Finally, Rawls grossly underrated the importance that people attach to income and wealth for their happiness. Importance of pecuniary incentives has only increased with globalization since income differences have become more visible.    

The changes over the past two decades have been, I believe, so remarkable that the typology offered by Rawls has lost its relevance. But if the typology does not fit reality then the recommended relations between the different societies, based on this typology, do not have any relevance. his is why I think it is time to either ditch Rawls or revise him very thoroughly. A job for political philosophers.

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