Wait a second, Rawlsians…

Ok, so you think distributive justice is a property of the basic structure of a society. And, at least according to some Rawlsians (like the big important Rawlsian who will remain nameless whose paper I am reading right now), the basic structure is those institutions that are necessary for social cooperation, like (allegedly) property rules.

Is a tax and transfer system necessary for social cooperation? Because if it isn’t, it isn’t part of the basic structure, right? And then distributive justice doesn’t apply to it, right? Insert strangled choking sound as the main redistributive tool of modern societies is Rawlsed out of justice.

Or perhaps a tax and transfer system with certain features is necessary to make things like property rules just, even though it is not itself part of the basic structure? That’s a weird view: when we ask whether or not X has a property (like, you know, justness), we usually don’t think that it depends on the properties or existence of something outside of X.

Something is wrong here, and it’s wrong in a way that lends support to, among others, cosmopolitans’ critique of Nagelian statism and Gerry Cohen’s critique of Theory of Justice.

Thoughts? Matt? X? Jacob? Ed if you’re still reading? Richard?

Clearly I need to read Gerry Cohen’s new book, stat, to see what the latest in the basic structure argument is. Not that this is relevant to my own current projects in any way whatsoever, but it is intrinsically interesting.


5 Responses to “Wait a second, Rawlsians…”

  1. Matt Says:

    Well, what is “necessary for social cooperation” will depend heavily on the sort of society in question. Was a tax-and-transfer necessary for social cooperation among primitive tribes? Not in the sense than we have one now, though I suppose they did have some means of making sure the group all had enough. But for modern society some sort of tax and transfer system is almost certainly necessary for social cooperation. How could it fail to be? Is there any modern society w/o some sort of thing like that? More can obviously be said. Now, a tax-and-transfer scheme might not necessarily be part of the basic structure- maybe there’s a different way to prevent the concentration of wealth that would upend fair equality of opportunity, to provide for the needy, and the like and that would also make the least off as well off as they could be. (Rawls sometimes seems to think that direct transfers would play a fairly limited role in a society that achieved fair equality of opportunity but I’m less sure and this surely doesn’t seem a necessary conclusion from his arguments.) So, you might also take it that while a tax-and-transfer system isn’t _properly_ part of the basic structure, it’s a necessary means to making the basic structure just and so covered by the principles of justice. This seems fairly straight-forward to me.

    You might also look at Samuel Scheffler’s paper “Is the Basic Structure Basic?” (It’s in a volume for Cohen- too expensive to buy but the library there probably has it.)

  2. Paul Gowder Says:

    Can’t we imagine a society — call it Libertarian Dystopia — with a functioning economy and social system, but where there are no state transfers to the poor, perhaps because a pervasive religious charity does it all?

    (Also, how recent is the use of tax systems for redistribution? I don’t know the history on this, but can someone chime in and say whether they’ve been around since industrialization, since the enlightenment, or what?)

    I’m a bit skeptical about the straightforwardness of the necessary means claim. It’s just an unusual form of argument: an X of a certain form is necessary to make Y just, but we don’t say that X is just or unjust itself? I can’t think of any other cases where properties of one object depend in such a strong way on the properties of some other object.

    Hmm… I guess we can make sense out of statements like “the chemical structure of carbon dioxide is necessary for plants to operate by photosynthesis,” but that seems subtly different, because photosynthesis is conceptually connected to carbon dioxide in a way that justice of the basic structure isn’t conceptually connected to a certain kind of tax and transfer system.

  3. Edward D. Baum Says:

    If by “Ed” you mean me I don’t think I really have much to say, I’m not familiar with Rawls, or much political philosophy in general.

    Given that, certain questions you ask seem partially answerable. As Matt already said, the nature of a society will determine if something is “necessary for social cooperation”. I assume we are talking about an ideal society not just the one we happen to have, so whether a “tax and transfer” system is necessary depends on the possibility space a society exists in. In some fairy tale world where anything anyone wanted was available for no work, it seems like it would not be required. In a world where proletariat would always and inevitably rise up in anger and destroy society without the dole it seems necessary. Where does that leave us in our actual world? I don’t know but it seems like an empirical question, although not a very well defined one as of yet.

    Your second question is of course rhetorical, as it follows from the definitions given.

    I think you’re very wrong about whether or not something has a property depends only upon itself, and nothing outside of it. Consider something as simple as velocity. Velocity, for instance, depends on something outside and object, it requires a frame of reference. Is the action of taking from A and giving to B just? Clearly we need to know more than just the action to answer that question.

    Like I said though, I don’t know beans about political theory.

  4. Paul Gowder Says:

    I meant a different Ed, but your contribution is both interesting and welcome!

  5. Matt Says:

    I don’t think your example of the religious charity works that well for a few reasons. First, the charity is getting it money somewhere. If it’s getting it from people and the redistributing it, it’s playing the functional role of a tax-and-transfer system, and I think it’s the functional role that’s important. The question then is whether this functional role is more justly fulfilled via the charity system or some tax-and-transfer system (or some other system). It seems the charity system is likely to lose on any plausible account. Secondly, if the charity system depends on people who have more than a limited benevolence then I think it falls outside the “conditions of justice” and isn’t really a plausible worry.

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