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Nic Tideman: Peace, Justice and Economic Reform

Suppose first that voters vote on the basis of their selfish personal interests. Then voting is incoherent as a basis for justice. If voters always vote selfishly, then at any time when you might think that the voting was over, there will always be some measure that can be proposed that will benefit a majority at the expense of a minority, which could therefore be adopted by selfish voting. The process of deciding by voting will never end if any proposal can be advanced at any time and people always vote selfishly. Selfish voting can be used to decide between any two proposals. And it can be used in more general settings if there is some more or less arbitrary stopping rule to keep the process from going on indefinitely. But selfish voting as a general mechanism for determining what is just is incoherent.

Now suppose that voters behave as unselfish, disinterested judges of what is best. In this case, voting as a mechanism for determining what is just is incomplete, because it leaves unanswered the question of what is meant by "best." Does "best" mean "creates the greatest total utility" or "comes closest to preserving the expectations of the status quo" or "maximizes the rate of growth of the population" or something else? How would you know what best means? If the Supreme Court knows that what is best is what comes closest to preserving the expectations that have developed from our Constitution and traditions, then the justices can employ voting to decide cases and establish new precedents. But to say that what is just is what is voted to be best by unselfish, disinterested judges without specifying what best means is to decline to answer the question of what justice is. Thus neither selfish voting nor unselfish voting serves to define justice, although there can be an element of voting in our efforts to resolve disagreements about what an agreed definition of justice requires in particular circumstances.

If voting cannot be used to define justice, one might entertain the possibility of using a contractarian formulation: What is just is the rules to which people would have agreed if they did not know their personal circumstances. In his 1958 paper, "Justice as Fairness," John Rawls said,

[Suppose that a group lets] each person propose the principles upon which he wishes his complaints to be tried with the understanding that, if acknowledged, the complaints of others will be similarly tried, and that no complaints will be heard at all until everyone is roughly of one mind as to how the complaints are to be judged. . . . each person will propose principles of a general kind which will, to a large degree, gain their sense from the various applications to be made of them, the particular circumstances of which being as yet unknown.[3]

This is a reasonable recipe for implementing the Golden Rule and a fine idea for seeking agreement about the principles by which complaints shall be judged. If people were to follow this suggestion and achieve the agreement that is described, they would achieve fairness.

However, this does not make Rawls's suggestion a good way to identify justice. The critical difficulty with his suggestion is that those who mete out justice cannot afford the luxury of securing complete agreement on principles. They must bring their judgement to bear on those who have not agreed on principles. In this context, the closest that a person can come to Rawls' suggestion is to ask himself, "Are the principles that I propose to apply ones that I would agree to if I did not know how I would personally be affected by them?"

In later writings, Rawls claims that in the original position, people would choose the rules that maximized the well-being of the representative member of the least advantaged class.[4] John Harsanyi, on the other hand, has said that in the original position people would choose the rules that maximized average utility.[5] Someone else might say that in the original position people would choose the rules that provided the greatest stability. How can we know what people would choose?

No matter how a contractarian answers this question, there will be the difficulty raised by Ackerman, in Social Justice in the Liberal State. Describing the attempt to apply the Rawlsian criterion, Ackerman says:

Despite my best efforts, I shall be defenseless . . . the moment I try to make it clear to another person why it is right that I, rather than he, should establish a claim over a disputed thing: I: When I look into myself, I am sure that I would have insisted upon this right as a condition for entering society with you. YOU: You haven't the slightest idea what you would have insisted on in a presocial state. You're simply using the idea of a potential entrant as a screen upon which to project the deepest desires of your socialized self. But I too have desires; why should mine be sacrificed to yours? And if you insist, it is possible that I too may delve deep into my psyche and find a transcendent grounding for my desires.[6]

The sword of justice is too momentous to be constrained by only the requirement that those who judge be able to convince themselves that their judgements satisfy principles to which they would have agreed, if they had not known how they would be affected by those principles. The contractarian approach may be a good way to seek consensus. It may be a good guideline for those who are called upon by disputants to arbitrate between them. But it is not a good way to define justice.  read the whole essay


Nic Tideman:  The Ethics of Coercion in Public Finance

A second common way of coping with the lack of disinterested parties is through Contractarianism. This is the axiom that it is just to coerce people to abide by rules to which they would have agreed before they knew how they would be personally affected by the rules.

There are several theories of justice that employ the Contractarian axiom. In The Calculus of Consent (1962), Buchanan and Tullock develop a theory of democratic principles growing out of a "constitutional setting." In this setting people are presumed to reach a consensus on rules with the greatest aggregate value, because they do not know what their roles will be in conflicts to which the rules will be applied.

The most famous modern application of Contractarianism is John Rawls' 1971 book, A Theory of Justice. Rawls argues that behind a "veil of ignorance" regarding one's personal characteristics, a person would want the rules that maximized the well-being of the representative member of the least advantaged class. To most economists, Rawls' specification of what would concern people behind a veil of ignorance sounds completely arbitrary and unfounded. If people are going to be overwhelmingly concerned about losing in the lottery of life, why would they focus on the representative member of the least advantaged class and not on the worst possible individual outcome? Why would people be unwilling to trade a minute loss by the least advantaged class for a substantial gain by the second-least advantaged class?

John Harsanyi (1975) argues that behind Rawls' veil of ignorance, people would not be concerned exclusively with the well-being of the representative member of the least advantaged class. Rather, they would recognize that they had equal chances of being all persons, and therefore, to maximize their expected utility, they would choose the rules that maximized the sum of individual utilities. The Buchanan and Tullock framework is consistent with Harsanyi's claim.

Another theory that applies the Contractarian axiom is Ronald Dworkin's (1981) theory of justice as equality of resources. Dworkin justifies an income tax as the expression of an insurance policy that people would desire before they knew their talents.

The fact that people using the basic idea of Contractarianism could come to conclusions as different as those of Rawls and Harsanyi is a reflection of a limitation of the axiom. Even if one of them has it wrong and the other right, the disagreement suggests that the Contractarian axiom is inevitably too vague and too subject to self-serving or idiosyncratic interpretations to serve as a basis for achieving consensus.3

To put the difficulty with Contractarianism in a somewhat different light, suppose that a person asks, "Why is it just for you to use your power to deprive me of what I want?" The Contractarian exercising power responds, "Because you would have agreed to the rule that deprives you, before you knew what your role in this dispute would be." The deprived person can respond, "No, not me. I never would have agreed to that." To justify the deprivation, the Contractarian must declare that the deprived person is mistaken or deceitful about that to which he would have agreed. Anything that the deprived person says about who he is or what has happened in his life can be declared to be irrelevant to the question of what rules he would actually have favored in a properly constructed contractual setting. The flesh-and-blood person asking for a justification of power goes unanswered.

Contractarianism does have potential value as an organizing principle for seeking to resolve disputes, because sometimes it will be possible to persuade a person involved in a dispute that what he seeks is inconsistent with a rule to which he would have agreed before he knew his personal role in the particular dispute. But Contractarianism is dangerously vague as limit on what people with power accord to themselves. It is too easy to convince oneself that people would have agreed to whatever you like in the hypothetical contractual setting....  Read the whole article


Nic Tideman: Improving Efficiency and Preventing Exploitation in Taxing and Spending Decisions

Rawls sets his proposals in the framework of a fourth possible principle of public action, the contractarian suggestion that it is just to coerce people to abide by the rules that they would have agreed to if they had had a chance, before they knew their individual circumstances. One difficulty with this rule is that it is so hard to know what it is that people would have agreed to in these circumstances. Rawls is convinced that people would have agreed to a lexical ordering of maximum individual liberty and the maximin principle. John Harsanyi offers a strong argument for the proposition that they would have agreed to the rules that would maximize total (or, equivalently, average) utility. This has some strange implications. For example, if it is possible to separate individuals into ascetics and sybarites, then the maximization of total utility requires that the ascetics be forced to work very hard, with the resulting output used for the benefit of the sybarites. And if one of your kidneys (or your eyes) would provide me with more utility than it provides you, then the state is justified in extracting it from you and giving it to me. Utilitarianism does not accommodate individual rights.

The disagreements among contractarians about what contractarianism implies provide a hint of a difficulty that Bruce Ackerman elaborates in Social Justice in the Liberal State: Contractarianism offers so little defense against people with power who delude themselves about the undeniability of their beliefs about what people would agree to before they knew their personal circumstances. The person who feels oppressed says "I never would have agreed to these rules before I knew my personal circumstances." Those with power reply, "It's obvious to us that you would have. Stop your griping." The scope for further dialogue is small, and the potential for abuse is great.

Another possible framework for the justification of government action is that those with power are simply elitists: They may believe that their exercise of power is justified by their superior understanding of the nature of the good. While it is not unreasonable to suggest that there are some persons who do have superior understanding of the nature of the good, it is extremely dangerous for people to justify the exercise of political power by self identification as members of the elite who have superior understanding of the nature of the good. It was thinking of that sort that gave the world Stalinism. The general thrust of Western political thinking has been that elitism is simply unacceptable as a justification for the exercise of political power.

On the basis of the arguments given, I reject conservatism, majoritarianism, egalitarianism, contractarianism, and elitism as justifications for coercive taxing and spending. A framework for just social arrangements that does make sense to me is classical liberalism, which asserts that it is just to coerce people to accord others the maximum individual liberty that all can have. This means that people have rights to their bodies, their talents, the products of their labor, and the returns to their savings. Anything produced by human effort belong to the producer, or to the producer's successor in title through gift and exchange. ... read the whole article




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Wealth and Want
... because democracy alone hasn't yet led to a society in which all can prosper