The last post looked at the psychological impact of inequality in Rousseau’s theories of history, politics and society. Another issue comes out of this is theories of justifiable and unjustifiable inequality. There are maybe two ways of thinking about this. One is the way that some Marxists see Rousseau as a precursor, because of his preference for something close to absolute equality of economic benefits, that is of wealth and income. The other way, which is enormousşy influential in recent political theory, is the way in which he was taken up by John Rawls as a precursor for his view that economic inequality is acceptable but only when certain conditions are met. One condition is that considerations of individual liberty should be satisfied, which is to say that institutions should be designed so that he human and civil rights of all, are protected. The more distinctive condition is that inequality should benefit the poorest in a society, that the economic conditions at the minimum level are maximised, through the economic growth promoted by incentives to work amd invest in productive ways. This could be considered broadly Rousseauesque in spirit, though Rousseau does not so much demand that institutions restrain economics inequality, as express a preference for societies where economic equality is natural part of that society, because conditions are not conducive to a large economic surplus, and that institutions reflect and preserve that already deeply embedded aspect of the society.
In the book where Rawls develops his views on equality, A Theory of Justice (1971), these arguments come quite early. Another more distinctly Rousseauesque argument comes up later in the book, when rawls refers to envy as something undesirable, to be minimised by reducing inequality. That is the elimination of unjustified inequality, which does not benefit the poorest. Envy for Rawls is understood as something resulting from inequality which cannot be rationally justified according to his own criteria. There are echoes here of Rousseau’s comments on the psychological disturbance caused by inequality. Though in Rawls’s case the psychological aspect is not so important, and we could consider ‘envy’ to be something defined through a hypothetical purely rational awareness of inequality and its origins, rather than something defined as a psychological issue.
The word ‘liberty’ in these posts is used because it is a word favoured by advocates of individualistic liberty understood to require a very limited state, and a very market oriented economy. Not everyone wishes to use liberty this way, but even social democratically minded thinkers like the ‘republican’ Philip Pettit are inclined to take individualistic liberty as a stating point from which we can build views of liberty which require collective action through the state. Pettit and others tend to refer back to the Isaiah Berlin distinction between negative and positive liberty, that is between liberty as liberty from state coercion, and liberty as perfection of individual faculties. Berlin sees positive liberty as desirable, but as something that is often taken up the state as a pretext for enforcing ‘perfection’ on everyone. That corrupted form of positive liberty has become so much associated with the very idea of positive liberty that Berlin’s original definition has been lost in much of what claims to refer to Berlin’s distinction. That may also be a consequence of weaknesses in Berlin’s argument in ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ (1958), as well as his taste for crude denunciations of Rousseau and others as enemies of liberty, referred to in the first post of this series. For Pettit, Rousseau is regarded with suspicion as too inclined to deny individuality in the homogeneous utopia of a perfect republic. There are moments in Rousseau where this has some force, but not as much as Pettit thinks, and certainly not as much as quotations from Rousseau taken in isolation may suggest. Rousseau could also be seen as pursuing an ideal in which all humans are very largely independent of each other, and of government and law, except when they come together in the mythical moment of the general will, which has the formal function of deciding on laws, laws which come from custom and morality.
Just as the more aggressive criticisms of Rousseau rest on a poor quality of encounter with the text, the taking up of Rousseau from a Marxist or a liberal egalitarian (on the lines of Rawls) point of view may rest on a overly schematic understanding. Rousseau’s thought, like that of Montesquieu, regards laws and institutions as properly based on a pre-exisitng reality with regard to geography, economic conditions and prevailing morality. It is not an appeal for a universal limitation on inequality, or its outright elimination. There is enough in Rousseau on the ideal of economic equality that his use by very egalitarian theorists is understandable. However, looking at the way his thought works, we can see Rousseau just as much presenting the force of the ideal of equality as something that should be taken along with other principles and is not to be taken as out ranking anything else. I very large part Rousseau’s thought can be seen as about how we are attracted to equality, suffer from the lack of equality and are conditioned psychologically because of this. All this is very compatible with very individualistic views of liberty, and adherents of such a position would do better to acknowledge this than just treat it as the source of a over mighty state. I offer Alexis de Tocqueville as someone who did this, and whose thought should be understood in that way. I intend to return to his example later.