Today’s global economy is generally based on the principles of capitalism, and it is true that our capitalistic system has produced more wealth, innovation and ingenuity than any other economic system humans have engaged in before. However, the costs of this system have been great. Capitalism rewards those who exploit the property, liberties and lives of others and discourages honesty, charity and good will. Capitalism created the slave trade and countless wars in the past and continues to encourage the exploitation of people and our environment today.
It is a sad fact that even today, as our own elected officials bicker over exactly how many cents the government should provide to the needy (while at the same time discussing how big of a tax cut the billionaires “deserve”), millions of Americans are forced to live without the basic necessities of life. Health insurance companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars lobbying legislators while their own customers are forced to pay ridiculous premiums that may or may not cover the expenses of a medical emergency. Children in the third world get paid a few cents per hour to fabricate the shoes that Nike sells for triple digit sums. Simple, hard-working farmers in countries like Jamaica are forced into poverty by the billion dollar multi-national corporations that sell their products (many of which are produced by the modern day equivalent of slave labor) for pennies on the dollar because of American government subsidies. Many of these people have no other option; they can either play by the rules of a system that is designed by the very people who seek to exploit them, or die.
The political theory proposed by John Rawls, titled Justice as Fairness, seeks to solve many of the problems of today’s socioeconomic system. The original position that Rawls uses to formulate his theory is quite simply ingenious, and the principles that he claims would be agreed on through this thought experiment are also quite brilliant. Both of Rawls’ principles are broad enough to be implemented in a variety of economic and political systems yet refined enough to stand the test of time. Though Rawls’ theory is far from a complete road map to the perfect society, he proposes many ideas that, when implemented, would create a more just society than the one we live in today.
Rawls basically says the only truly just principles are those that everyone in society would agree upon in the “original position.” This original position is a hypothetical place where members of society would send a representative who is unaware of whom they represent. These representatives would be behind a “veil of ignorance,” which basically means they would be unaware of where the people they represent stand in society, i.e. their talents, skills, race, gender, social class etc. Because our representatives would be unaware of where we stand in our society, they would endeavor to create principles that create the most fairness and equality for everyone. They would want to ensure that if we are talentless, poor and have no rank of any kind in society, we are still taken care of. It is in this original position that Rawls claims we would all agree on two basic principles of justice.
The first principle that Rawls says we would all agree on is generally called the “liberty principle.” This principle states that each person has the same claim to basic liberties and freedoms. Essentially, this is saying no one class, gender or group of people should be privileged in terms of liberty. Everyone has the same right to equal, basic liberties. This principle arises from the fact that we are all equal, and thus we should all have equal liberties.
The second principle Rawls says we would agree on in the original position is the “difference principle.” This principle basically tells us when inequalities are allowed in society and how they should be set up. The difference principle states that all inequalities in society must satisfy two conditions: first they must be attached to jobs, offices and positions that are open to all (equal opportunity for all), and secondly, all inequalities are to be of greatest benefit the least advantaged people in society. This principle can be applied in many different ways, but basically says there can be no inequalities in society unless those inequalities are to the greatest benefit of those people who are worst off in society.
Rawls’ principles are unique in that they can be applied to many different socioeconomic systems. Rawls himself says his principles can be applied to property-owning forms of democracy and liberal forms of democratic socialism. However, I believe these principles can be applied to many other types of economic and political systems. This is the true brilliance of Rawls’ political theory: as long as these two principles are upheld, the system will be fair.
The libertarianism of John Hospers is often considered the political theory in exact opposition to the theory presented by Rawls. Hospers’ form of libertarianism is considered “right” libertarianism; in his proposed system, a government’s duty is to preserve the rights to life, liberty and private property of its citizens. The rights that Hospers advocates are often termed “negative” rights or “passive” rights because they do not require active support to preserve. For example, the negative right to life means that no one has the right to kill me, whilst the positive right to life means I am entitled to treatment if I become ill. In the world Hospers sees, the government plays a very small role in the lives of its citizens. The sole responsibilities of a government are to create a military, a police force, and a court system. Anything else, like public schools, public roads and utilities, welfare, food stamps etc. are all strictly forbidden under Hospers’ libertarianism. The free market is supposed to work out all the kinks and provide equality of opportunity for all.
The biggest problem with Hospers’ libertarianism is its reliance on the principles of capitalism to create equality of opportunity. Capitalism is a system that not only allows greed, but encourages and rewards those who are the greediest. It is hard to imagine any kind of meaningful equality of opportunity in such a society.
Libertarianism doesn’t take into account the fact that, in a capitalistic society, capital is power. Unchecked capitalism encourages the formation of mega-corporations that can swallow entire industries whole. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil for instance, drove small business owners into poverty all too quickly. Were it not for the actions of the Supreme Court, we would all be paying 500 dollars for a gallon of gas by now. Utility companies are another example. When a natural gas or electric company is the sole provider in any area, rates will increase exponentially. The capitalistic idea of competition will quite simply be thrown out the window by mergers between companies, and soon there will be only one company in every industry. Prices will rise, the rich will get richer and the poor and middle class will be left to die.
Chile is a classic example of the inadequacies of Laissez-faire capitalism. When the Chicago Boys radically changed the economic policies of Chile in the 1970s and 80s to reflect neoliberal ideals, great results were expected. In reality, income inequality grew drastically, overall unemployment and real wages plummeted, pollution rose, and public industries that were once well in the green were sold off to the detriment of the industry and the people*. The rich became richer and the poor became poorer.
Here in America, we have come up with the idea that anyone can make it to the top. Sadly, this isn’t true. In this country, we reward those who have physical talents (as in sports), physical beauty, or some kind of intelligence (the ability to make it through medical school, law school etc.). If someone doesn’t have any of these, they might have some kind of inheritance which they can invest. However, someone without any of the above, physical talent, beauty, intelligence or an inheritance, is quite simply screwed. They will work menial jobs for their entire life, living paycheck to paycheck just to support themselves and/or their family.
The classic libertarian rebuttal to these points is, “life isn’t fair, get over it.” It’s a sad fact that many of the people who support Hospers’ libertarianism would be the same people that would suffer from its consequences. If we as a society instead choose to live by Rawls’ principles, life can be fair and just. The fact is we are not lions and zebras. We are humans, and we are all equal. I cannot say I am better than anyone else because of my race, my gender, my social class, or my physical or intellectual talents. I cannot say that I deserve to live, while another innocent person deserves to die. The moment I am justified in saying such a thing, someone else becomes justified in saying I deserve to die. By allowing the vast inequalities in society that are fostered by Hospers’ libertarianism, we are sentencing ourselves to death.
*Kangas, Steve. “Chile: The Laboratory Test.” A critique of the Chicago School of Economics.