Rawls, Hayek and Libertarian Political Philosophy: The Rise of the Rawlsekians

Rawlsekian is a word that was first used, to the best of my knowledge, in the headline of a piece by Will Wilkinson for Cato@Liberty (part of the website of the libertarian foundation, Cato), ‘Is Rawlsekianism the Future?’, posted on 4th December 2006.  The item builds on an idea floated by Brink Lindsey (like Wilkinson now an ex-Cato employee) of ‘liberaltarianism’, that is an alliance between libertarians and liberals (as social democrats are known in the United States) rather than the more familiar alliance between libertarians and conservatives.  Hopes of a liberaltarian moment around Barack Obama’s election have now been obliterated, but the idea lives on, and is gaining influence, at the more philosophical and theoretical level, which is where Rawlsekianism enters the stage.

Rawlsekianism is one way of referring to the combination of the ideas of the political philosopher John Rawls with the ideas of the economist and political thinker Friedrich Hayek.  I say thinker rather than philosopher for Hayek, because though his work is very interesting philosophically, and touches on various areas of philosophy, he did not write about political ideas through the kind of very systematic, or at least thorough exploration, of principles and concepts, you would expect from a philosopher.  Rawls is most famous for his monumental  1971 book A Theory of Justice.  An early version of some of the arguments from that book can be found freely online in the paper ‘Justice as Fairness’.  Rawls was famously committed to the idea that the institutions of a society should be designed to promote first liberty, and then the maximum welfare of the poorest people in that society, which includes the ‘difference principle’ according to which income and wealth inequality can only be just, where they leave the poorest better off than in other institutional arrangements with less inequality. Rawls’ position is typically referred to as ‘egalitarian liberalism, because his argument is very weighted to a preference for equality, except where there are strong arguments for saying it is not in the interests of the poorest.  Nevertheless, A Theory of Justice is designed to put forward a set of criteria for evaluating different models with regard to economic outcomes, and does not explicitly presume any preference for a particular choice.

Hayek argues in his to biggest books, The Constitution of Liberty (1969) and Law, Legislation and Liberty (1973-1979) that institutions should promote individual liberty and open market economies.  Market economies are preferred for economic reasons and for reasons of liberty.  Freedom in the market place corresponds with individual liberty, in part, because long term economic growth can only come from individual responses to dispersed economic information, particularly prices.  No planning agency can capture that dispersed, subjective and changeable process of receiving information and reacting to it.  There is considerable scepticism about the possibility of planning economic outcomes, though Hayek does not reject all economic planning.  From his point of view, like all laws and state actions, it should be directed at the most general level.  One thing that Hayek certainly thinks goes beyond the capacity of any planner, is to aim at any particular distribution of income and property.  Furthermore, he thinks questions of the economic ranking of individuals should to a large degree be separated from theories of justified wealth, since inevitably luck and changeable context plays a large role in determining the economic situation of individuals.  Hayek’s views on economic knowledge can be found freely online in his 1945 paper ‘The Use of Knowledge in Society’.  His broader views can be found freely online in an abbreviated version of his 1944 book, The Road to Serfdom.  Hayek strongly criticises welfarism in the sense of widespread dependency on state benefits, and the growth of a large state apparatus to administer those benefits.

I’ve highlighted those points on which the divergence between Rawls and Hayek looks strongest.  However, we can reconcile them.  That does not mean that we should think Rawls and Hayek are saying the same thing, but we do find if we concentrate on underlying principles rather than the most radical sounding moments in their work, that it is not so  difficult to find unity.  Rawls’ has arguments for inequality, and largely assumes that a market economy will generate inequalities necessary to improve the condition of the poorest.  Hayek himself sometimes expresses the opinion that capitalism is justified by the benefits it brings the poorest and most marginal.  Raws does not have an ideal distribution pattern in any of his publications.  Hayek had a favourable reaction to Rawls in Law, Legislation and Liberty.  Though Hayek opposed ‘welfarism’, he did not oppose minimum income schemes and state promoted social insurance , he just thought these should be designed in ways that minimise dependency and expansion of the state.  Rawls’ arguments for equality are always based on the assumption that liberty comes first, and outranks equality as a principle, much to the horror of many of Rawls most  left-wing readers.  The well known political philosopher Raymond Geuss, condemns Rawls for betraying the revolutionary and egalitarian hopes of the 1960s.  The political philosopher, John Tomasi, argues that Hayek himself anticipated Rawls’ ‘difference principle’ (defined above).

Mention of Tomasi leads me to links to various forms of content about ‘Rawlsekianism’.  Three figures have really emerged as important in this, though not just through discussion of Rawls and Hayek, but also through a general concern to integrate libertarian individualistic concerns with other concerns, including those of public assistance to the poorest : John Tomasi, for example his 2012 book Free Market Fairness; Jerry Gaus, for example in his 2010 book, The Order of Public Reason; David Schmidtz, for example his 2006 book The Elements of Justice. Gaus and Schmidtz are both associated with the Department of Philosophy at the University of Arizona, and the The Freedom Center at the same university.  Tomasi whose permanent appointment at Brown University will be at the Center in the coming academic year.  So Arizona is the place for Rawlsekain action.

So there has been some egalitarian liberal engagement with this approach,and this is where I’ll start putting up a systematic set of links.  Elizabeth Anderson has discussed ‘Rawlsekianism’ from a more egalitarian approach than Schmidtz, Tomasi and Gaus in the inappropriately titled podcast, ‘Tom Paine and the Ironies of Social Democracy’, and a webcast with David Schmidtz on Philosophy TV.  Further information about Anderson and links to her work can be found at her University of Michigan, Department of Philosophy homepage.

For David Schmitdtz go to his website for information and links to his work.  For a Schmidtz discussion with Russ Roberts, in the Econtalk series, on Rawls and Nozick, click here.

For Gerald Gaus, and links to his work, go to his personal website.  A podcast introduction to his recent work can be be found at Kosmos, which is affiliated with the libertarian Institute for Humane Studies.

John Tomasi discusses his recent work in a Cato Book Forum event available in various formats.  He discusses his ideas with Glenn Loury on a Blogging Heads webcast available in various formats.  There is a discussion in the form of online posts of Tomasi’s understanding of libertarianism at CatoUnbound and of Free Market Fairness at the Bleeding Heart Libertarianism group blog, which includes contributions from Anderson, Will Wilkonson and the Rawlsian political philosopher Samuel Freeman.

Schmidtz’s discussion of Robert Nozick and Rawls leads us onto the topic of the direction of libertarian political philosophy.  It was a field largely defined by Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974), which is maybe the most influential work of normative theory (Analytic politicalş philosophy) after Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, though more because of the methods of argument then the substantive claims.  Nozick’s position is strictly monarchist, that is he regards the state as restricted to the provision of law and order, along with national security.  Schmidtz, Gaus and Tomasi, along with interlocutors like Anderson, have moved the centre of libertarian political philosophy to the position advocated by Hayek, in which a wish to minimise the role of the state, is combined with the belief that the state has a more than minarchist role in maintaining the income of the poorest and providing public goods beyond security from violence.

All this is very welcome as far as I am concerned, but not what I do in my own work.  I will try to address my own related, but different, work in a post soon.




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