Urbanities

John Kekes
Dangerous Egalitarian Dreams
Autumn 2001

The most celebrated public philosophers of our time—our Rousseau and Voltaire, so to speak—are John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin. Prophets of a non-Marxist socialism, they provide the rationale for the domestic agenda of the left wing of the Democratic party, and they are in large measure responsible for the Left's remarkable success in occupying the moral high ground. They have convinced the nation's elites that it is a matter of simple justice for our society systematically to deprive the large majority of citizens of a sizable portion of their legally owned property to benefit a much smaller minority—an Orwellian redefinition that mocks as well as violates justice. In their egalitarian philosophical system, there's no need to debate the merits of progressive taxation, anti-poverty programs, socialized medicine, affirmative action, and welfare legislation: a society that lacks them is, by definition, not a just society.

One can't overemphasize the towering prestige these two enjoy among the liberal elites. President Clinton decorated Rawls, a retired Harvard philosophy professor, with the Medal of Freedom, and the Chronicle of Higher Education recently celebrated him as "the most distinguished moral and political philosopher of our age," depicting him on its cover among portraits of his supposed peers—Aristotle, Hobbes, Kant, and Hegel. His best-known book, A Theory of Justice, has sold over 200,000 copies—an unheard-of number for a thick and turgid theoretical treatise—and it has been translated into more than 20 languages since its 1971 publication. Rawls's 1993 sequel, Political Liberalism, restates the original theory, revising a detail here and there. In philosophy departments across the land, young scholars tirelessly churn out explications of his thought.

If Rawls is the sage of egalitarianism, Dworkin is its darling. A lawyer by training, he holds not one but two titled professorships: of Law and Philosophy at New York University and of Jurisprudence at Oxford. His fellow lawyers at the American Bar Association awarded him their Silver Gavel award, and the prestigious Journal of Philosophy anoints him "America's leading legal philosopher." His books, collections of articles from such journals as The New York Review of Books, are written in catchy, accessible prose, dripping with moral indignation over the liberal Left's usual catalog of supposed injustices. Dworkin is a master at finding constitutional means for pursuing egalitarian policies; judges and law professors across the land hang on every word he utters.

Unlike the traditional defenders of legislative injustice, who asserted the supposed excellences of those who benefited from unjust laws at the expense of others, Rawls and Dworkin defend injustice on the basis of the deficiencies of those who benefit from it. The mere fact that some people in a society own less property than others, they claim, is a good reason to try to equalize the difference between them. After all, a just government ought to treat everyone with equal consideration, and, they assert, doing so requires legislation aimed at the equalization of property. This economic egalitarianism goes far beyond the uncontroversial claim that people should have equal political and legal rights. Economic egalitarianism requires depriving the 86 percent of citizens who live above the poverty level of a substantial portion of their legally owned property in order to give it to the 14 percent who live below it.

The impassioned egalitarian rhetoric that asserts this supposed obligation cows many people into acquiescence. But no such obligation exists, and the appeal to it is absurd, because it requires the equalization of the property of rapists and their victims, welfare cheats and taxpayers, spendthrifts and savers. No reasonable person can believe that we are obliged to treat the moral and immoral, the prudent and imprudent, the law-abiding and the criminal with equal consideration. While we may have an obligation to help those who are poor through no fault of their own, it is absurd to suppose that if, as a result of bad choices, people find themselves below the poverty level, then it becomes the obligation of the government to help them by confiscating a considerable portion of the property of everyone else.

It may be thought that no one could seriously hold such an implausible view. But Rawls and Dworkin do hold it, and they have persuaded many highly intelligent people to share it by giving systematic expression to the unwarranted but pervasive guilt that many affluent people feel about poverty and by proposing elaborately reasoned policies that assuage this guilt. Their reasons, however, fly in the face of common sense, repudiate the conception of justice that has been fundamental in the Western tradition, and have consequences that would outrage the moral sensibility of reasonable people, if they perceived them.

Rawls and Dworkin turn to the contractarian tradition of Hobbes and Locke in order to concoct the justifications they need. In that tradition, the relation between individuals and their society was conceived as a hypothetical contract, in which individuals give up some of their liberty in exchange for society's protection of the conditions in which they can pursue their happiness as they see fit, so long as they do not interfere with the like pursuits of others. Hobbes and Locke knew that they were resorting to a metaphor; they did so in order to clarify and dramatize their deeply meditated understanding of what human nature really is and how society actually works.

Rawls and Dworkin also offer a hypothetical contract, but its very point is to ignore the realities of psychology, the historical, political, and economic actualities of particular societies, and the actual principles of justice that exist in them. The amazing egalitarian claim is that rationality requires us to disregard these concrete circumstances and actual principles in order to conform to more fundamental abstract and general principles, which Rawls and Dworkin then use to justify the radical transformation of our society and the confiscation of legitimately owned property.

But how could it possibly be rational to confiscate property without asking whether people are entitled to own it, or to regard poverty as unjust without inquiring why some are, and some are not, poor? Rawls and Dworkin consciously oppose the long tradition of political thought that rightly holds it an elementary requirement of rationality to understand the different historical circumstances of actual societies before condemning them. Their attempted justification rests on a procedure that prefers imagination to facts; their abstract egalitarian principles merely express their own prejudices—and everything they spin out of those prejudices, however logically, can appeal only to those who happen already to share them.

Rawls calls the hypothetical situation he invents the "original position." He imagines rational and self-interested people coming together to legislate for all times the principles under which they will live. Each will, inevitably, choose principles favorable to himself. Rawls stipulates, however, that the principles chosen would have to be endorsed by all of them. To explain how rational and self-interested people could reach the required unanimity, Rawls invents another device, the "veil of ignorance," which conceals from the legislators in the original position all knowledge about their own characters, circumstances, and positions in the society for which they are legislating. Since they do not know what principles would favor them, they will endorse principles that would render tolerable even the worst position that they may occupy in the newly constituted society.

The veil of ignorance, however, cannot yield what Rawls wants to extract from it, for those who are behind Rawls's veil are not human beings but puppets. Human beings who are rational and self-interested will not reach the conclusions Rawls requires, because they have the knowledge Rawls denies them and because their interests are different and often conflicting. The unanimity that Rawls's puppets reach tells us nothing about the principles that real human beings would reach.

Rawls glosses over this fatal defect and claims that his legislators would unanimously endorse what he calls the "equal liberty" and the "difference" principles. The first requires that there be maximum liberty in the society for everyone, consistent with like liberty for all—a restatement of the principle John Stuart Mill proposed in On Liberty. Rawls recognizes that the equal liberty principle would result in great economic inequalities. Differences in people's talents, education, experiences, and good or bad luck will affect their economic success. There is, therefore, a need for a second principle to determine what economic inequalities are permissible. And what that principle says, among other things, is that "economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are . . . to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged." It is, for instance, acceptable for doctors to earn outsize salaries if that is the only way people living in poverty can receive good health care. A society arranged according to these principles would thus be perpetually redistributing its citizens' property by taking from those who are better-off what does not benefit those who are worst-off.

Rawls's two principles of justice cannot deliver what they promise. The first promises extensive liberty; the second, economic equality. But, given the obvious fact of great individual differences, how people exercise their liberty will result in economic inequality. Similarly, economic equality requires curtailing individual liberty. Rawls sees this conflict, and he copes with it by allowing only as much liberty as is compatible with economic equality. He thus begins in the liberal tradition of Locke and Mill, by promising liberty, and ends, in the socialist tradition, by stifling liberty for the sake of economic equality.

To make concrete what this theory regards as justice, compare two of our society's worst-off. The first, a mugger who has never held a job, is vicious when he can get away with it and spends his ill-gotten gains on drugs. The second, a mother of three, has been abandoned by her husband; she earns the minimum wage at a menial job and is trying hard to raise her children well. According to what Rawls calls justice, these two are entitled to the same resources from society simply because they are among the worst-off. The mugger's viciousness and lack of effort and the mother's decency and struggle create no morally relevant difference between them.

Now change the scenario a bit. The mugger continues as before, but the mother's efforts have borne fruit. She has found a better job and is doing well at it. Her family now is moderately secure and comfortable but hardly affluent. On Rawls's view, justice requires taking some of the mother's resources in order to give them to the mugger.

In deeming this blatant injustice just, Rawls repudiates the conception—accepted from the Old Testament to recent times—that justice consists in giving people what they deserve: reward for good conduct and punishment for bad. Justice requires protecting people, like the mother, in the enjoyment of their legally owned property against the depredations of criminals, like the mugger, and the confiscatory policies of egalitarians. The efforts to equalize the property of the deserving and the undeserving, as Rawls advocates, is not justice but its opposite, no matter what Rawls calls it.

Rawls is explicit about his repudiation. He recognizes that "there is a tendency for common sense to suppose that income and wealth, and the good things in life generally, should be distributed according to moral desert." But no. "The principles of justice . . . do not mention moral desert, and there is no tendency for distributive shares to correspond to it." After all, what people deserve is a consequence of the contingencies of their genetic inheritance, upbringing, and circumstances; since they have no control over these conditions, it is wrong to make the distribution of benefits and harms depend on conditions for which they bear no responsibility. As he puts it: "[T]he initial endowment of natural assets and the contingencies of their growth and nurture in early life are arbitrary from the moral point of view." Since equal liberty, the first principle of justice, would result in the success of those whom fortune favors with talents or the capacity for hard work, and in the failure of those who have the misfortune to be untalented or lazy, the second principle of justice overcomes this arbitrariness by not allowing people to benefit from their good fortune or suffer from their misfortune.

To the obvious objection that, though people might have no control over the initial conditions of their lives, they do have control over what they make of these conditions, Rawls says no—human actions never escape the gravitational pull of one's background. "The effort a person is willing to make is influenced by his natural abilities and skills and alternatives open to him. The better endowed are more likely, other things equal, to strive conscientiously and there seems to be no way to discount for their greater fortune."

But Rawls is wrong. Many people born and raised in poverty, after all, have succeeded in leaving it behind. What the mother achieved, others can too; nothing forced the mugger to take up a life of crime. However hard it may be to succeed in life if one lives in poverty, Rawls's argument that poverty reduces people to helpless victimhood is an insult to the poor.

In its radical denial of individual responsibility, Rawls's theory is profoundly subversive, however reasonable or modest its tone. Not only does it make morality and legality impossible, undermining the foundation of civilized life, but also, on an even deeper level, it robs us of our essential humanity—our souls and free will. It is hard to imagine a theory more relentlessly anti-humanistic.

Ronald Dworkin, for his part, recognizes this profound problem in Rawls and seeks to correct it. Ideally, he says in his recent Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality, a book that sums up his thought, we should hold people personally responsible for their actions. But doing so only makes sense, he holds, in an egalitarian society, where no one suffers from the undeserved disadvantages that relieve them of responsibility in our existing, unequal society. Dworkin's version of egalitarianism is in fact just as absolute as Rawls's. Like Rawls, he believes that "no government is legitimate that does not show equal concern for the fate of all those citizens over whom it claims dominion." It follows, then, that government is only "tyranny," he claims, if "a nation's wealth is very unequally distributed, as the wealth of even very prosperous nations is."

Dworkin dreams up an "egalitarian fantasy" that illustrates the principle of "equal resources" on which a truly egalitarian society would be founded. Imagine people on a desert island possessing equal assets in a sort of primitive communism. According to his social contract myth, they would participate in an auction, bidding their equal assets for bundles of resources: tools to build with, say, or land to grow things on, or violins to learn how to play—anything that will allow them to live the kind of life they want to lead, whether it is as a carpenter, a farmer, a venture capitalist, a monk, or a musician. The distribution of resources that shakes out from this auction is fair and equal, Dworkin asserts, because it automatically passes an "envy test": no one will prefer someone else's bundle of resources to his own, since all have started out from the same place and have made their choices freely. Only when people can decide their courses of life in this unconstrained fashion, Dworkin believes, can we say that they are at once equal and personally responsible for their fates.

Dworkin doesn't think that his auction, by itself, will get rid of all unacceptable inequalities. One person might bid for a secure family life, only to find it disrupted by his spouse's premature death. Some people are born stupid or unattractive, and the auction can't make their deficiencies whole. Post-auction lives, in other words, may still be marked by bad luck. To protect people from such misfortune, Dworkin adds to his imagined auction a compulsory insurance scheme.

How does Dworkin apply this fantasy to the allegedly unjust society we live in? He does not, and he doubts it could be applied: "It is a complex and perhaps unanswerable question what equality of resources asks of us, as individuals, in our own society." But he is nevertheless certain that somehow, in some mysterious way, his scheme can serve "as a rough model in designing political and economic institutions for the real world in search of as much equality of resources as can be found." Following that rough model, however, would—at a minimum—require massive redistributive taxation to restore people as closely as possible to the state of primitive equality on his fantasy island. And he tirelessly urges the courts to make his fantasy real by legitimizing the permanent redistribution of legally owned property.

When you outline Dworkin's theory of equal resources, you can't fail to see how thin and incoherent it is—nd to be mystified by the adulation that people who should know better shower on this writer. Remarkably, he provides no reason for us to accept his belief that the legitimacy of a government depends on the equal distribution of wealth. Why should a government have equal concern for moral and immoral, law-abiding and criminal, responsible and irresponsible citizens? Dworkin never says. He admits readers will need to look "elsewhere" for arguments in defense of egalitarianism. Like Rawls, in other words, he starts with "background assumptions" about what equality requires in principle, and then just formulates a theory to work out the implications of his initial assumptions. Winding up more or less where he begins, he assumes exactly the point most in need of argument. You would already have to agree with his egalitarian premises to find anything he says even remotely persuasive.

Nor should it escape notice how extraordinary it is to elevate envy into the criterion of justice, as Dworkin does by requiring his initial distribution of resources to pass the "envy test." The Western tradition, from the Ten Commandments on down, has viewed envy as a vice, because it leads people to resent the legitimate achievements of others and to try to deprive them of advantages they have earned by legal and moral means. Dworkin's envy test doesn't ask whether people deserve their advantages or whether those who lack them need them. It only asks whether those without advantages want them.

But it is one thing for the starving to envy those with plenty to eat; it is quite another for, say, a successful businessman to envy an extremely successful one. Yet that is exactly what the envy test requires. Such ressentiment is destructive of the political emotions, since it twists the soul of the envious person, making him incapable of civic solidarity. Perversely, Dworkin is taking the worst in human nature and using it as a touchstone for the good society. Given the human propensity to covet, moreover, why does he think that any distribution of resources could ever satisfy the envy test, even at his mythical moment of the foundation of society—when people, seeing the choices that other people make, will suddenly repent of their own?

In making envy key to his ideal society, Dworkin takes to its furthest extreme the idea of relative deprivation at the heart of left-wing thought since at least the 1950s. If a person enjoys a modest but decent standard of living, yet finds himself surrounded by others who drive around in Mercedes Benzes and wear Cartier watches, the Left believes, then he is still poor and victimized—even though he may live just as well materially as someone considered comfortably middle class a few decades earlier, as is in fact the case with today's poor. Relative deprivation ensures that the poor indeed will always be with us, even if the so-called poor have enough.

Dworkin also shows himself to be breathtakingly cavalier about economic realities. He seems to assume that resources are just lying around ready for us to pick up. In the real world, of course, people have to mix their labor with raw material to create resources. Somebody must produce the tools, the violin, the food, the oil—indeed, most resources you can think of. But why would anybody willingly produce anything in Dworkin's world, since the fruits of labor go equally to those who produce nothing? Surely the catastrophic failure of Marxism has shown with irrefutable clarity the folly of trying to suppress economic incentives.

Even if we were somehow to set up a Dworkinian society, it would soon deviate from the ideal, re-creating the very inequalities that Dworkin seeks to banish. After all, people are dif- ferent. Some might grow wealthy using resources constructively. Others might grow poor squandering resources by living dissolutely. Dworkin acknowledges that this might be true. "It is, of course, impossible to say in advance just what the consequences of any profound change in the economic system would be, and who would gain or lose in the long run." When the inequalities start cropping up again, though, do we just go back to the desert island and start over, in a kind of bleak permanent revolution? Or do we allow the inequalities to stand, since they have resulted from people's free choices?

Indefensible as it is, Dworkin's theory usefully illustrates problems that render all versions of egalitarianism untenable. Egalitarians face a fatal dilemma. If they say, as does Dworkin, that individual responsibility really does matter, then they must accept the anti-egalitarian claim that it is wrong to equalize the resources of people who live up to their responsibilities and those who don't. Conversely, if they insist, as does Rawls, that individual responsibility makes no difference in deciding what resources people should have, then they are committed to the absurd and unjust policy of confiscating the legally owned property of moral, prudent, and law-abiding people in order to benefit the immoral, imprudent, and criminal. The only escape from this dilemma is to abandon egalitarianism.

Egalitarianism (like libertarianism) also falls prey to the dangerous political mistake of making one particular value "sovereign" over all others. In the politics of civilized contemporary societies, there can be no first or sovereign virtue. Our complex societies properly seek to protect an array of desirable things—like civil liberties, privacy, peace, prosperity, and security—and to avoid undesirable things, including terrorist attacks, crime, disease, poverty, discrimination, ignorance, and war. Every society must cope with ever present conflicts among the many things it values and between protecting what it values and avoiding what it condemns. This is an immensely complicated balancing act, in which the weight attributed to each good and bad thing continually shifts. Whatever egalitarians might say, no single thing in this flux can reasonably have permanent overriding importance.

A final problem dooms all versions of egalitarianism: myopia about the realities of history. Rawls and Dworkin both pay lip service to the free market. But their commitment to it is no stronger than their commitment to liberty in general. Rawls supports the free market just so long as it is not harmful to economic equality. And Dworkin thinks that "if we accept equality of resources . . . liberty becomes an aspect of equality rather than . . . an independent political ideal." Neither has learned the inescapable historical lesson that the free market, liberated from excessive political interference, is the key to generating the prosperity needed to reduce poverty. Egalitarians condemn our society on account of the 14 percent who live below the poverty level. If they had a historical perspective, they would celebrate instead the enormous achievement of having a society where 86 percent live above the poverty level. In the vast majority of past societies, the ratio was much closer to the reverse. The free market is what has brought about this remarkable reversal.

No matter how misguided egalitarianism is, poverty remains an inescapable fact of life. Decent people may ask whether they shouldn't do something to help those who are poor through no fault of their own. Here's the answer: they already are doing something. Consider a family of four: two parents and two children. They have an annual income of $100,000, so they are presumed affluent. Taking various exemptions into account, they are likely to pay about $30,000 in federal and state taxes and contributions to Social Security and Medicare. In addition, they'll pay property and school taxes, and sales tax on the various things they buy. In all, they probably pay about $35,000 in taxes. Welfare programs eat up roughly 60 percent of the federal and state budget, so out of the family's total annual taxes, around $21,000 goes to welfare. They spend one dollar out of every five they earn to help others.

Of course, generosity, pity, charity, benevolence, or compassion may lead them to do more. But as to the supposed obligation to do more—there is none.

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