John Rawls’s Unfortunate Notions of the Nation-State

The most famous work of twentieth-century political philosophy is John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (1971). The most controversial part of this book is the “difference principle”: “Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: (a) They are to be attached to positions and offices open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and (b), they are to be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society” More exactly, it’s the second part of the principle that has generated controversy. This says that inequalities are allowed only if they help the least well-off.

Rawls defends “difference principle” in this way. People do not deserve to benefit from their superior talents or social opportunities more than those less talented or with fewer opportunities. Why should LeBron James’ natural talent for basketball enable him to get much more money than those players who practice as much as he does but aren’t as talented? James is lucky to be so talented, and, Rawls maintains, luck should not determine the distribution of goods in society Instead, inequalities of income and wealth should be allowed only to the extent that they benefit the least well- off class in a given society.

Rawls is talking here about modern nation states, considered as separate societies. Doesn’t this raise a problem for his theory? Why has Rawls restricted the difference principle to the least well-off class in a given society? Why not extend the scope of the principle to cover the least well-off class in the entire world? Even the worst-off in a prosperous society like the United States are much better off than those in most other countries. Isn’t birth in the United States and not in a poor country also a matter of luck? If so, don’t anti-luck arguments require us to extend the difference principle worldwide?

Rawls rejects this extension. In The Law of Peoples, he says that the scope of justice is confined to individual societies. He thinks that countries have only limited humanitarian obligations to less well-off nations; those lucky enough to be born in prosperous national circumstances need not share their gains with others. Why not? Is his restriction arbitrary?

The philosopher Thomas Nagel has written an influential article, “The Problem of Global Justice, that defends Rawls’ restriction of the difference principle to national societies. The article has a valuable but unintentional consequence. It makes clear that the entire basis of Rawls’ political philosophy rests on an unfounded premise.

Nagel gives the rationale for extending the difference principle worldwide, against which he will be arguing, in this way: “The accident of being born in a poor rather than a rich country is as arbitrary a determinant of one’s fate as the accident of being born in a poor rather than a rich family in the same country”.

Nagel counters this rationale by asking a fundamental question: why should inequality mandate any redistribution at all, once people have risen above the level of absolute deprivation? Even if you do not deserve to benefit from your superior talents, that fact in itself conveys no claim on these talents to others. Libertarians will agree; but Nagel now makes his Rawlsian move. Members of certain groups can sometimes have stricter obligations to each other than they owe to strangers. You owe more to your parents than you do to a next-door neighbor who isn’t related to you.

In a similar way, Nagel says, citizens of a nation are bound together. They have an obligation to obey their country’s laws; and, if they live in a democracy, they share responsibility for enacting these laws. In Rousseau’s language, they form the “general will.” Too much inequality interferes with these common bonds; thus we have egalitarian obligations to our fellow citizens. We don’t owe these obligations to citizens of other countries, because we aren’t bound to them in the same way. Justice, in this view, is not a “cosmopolitan” virtue, owed to anyone in the world; it is a “political” virtue that applies only to those subject to a common sovereignty. “The important point for our purposes is that Rawls believes that this moral principle against arbitrary inequalities is not a principle of universal application. . . . Rather, in his theory the objection to arbitrary inequalities gets a foothold only because of the societal context. What is objectionable is that we should be fellow participants in a collective enterprise of coercively imposed legal and political institutions that generate such arbitrary inequalities. . . . One might even say that we are all participants in the general will. A sovereign state is not just a cooperative enterprise for mutual advantage”

If people are bound to each other in the way that Rawls and Nagel suggest, then they might very well have stronger obligations toward their fellow members than to others. But a gap remains in the argument. Nagel has not shown that people have reason to establish the type of coercive enterprise that he describes. Indeed, from a libertarian standpoint, we can go further. People who wish to establish themselves as a tightly knitted together social body have no right to compel the unwilling to enlist in their enterprise; nor are they at liberty to prevent people in their society from seceding.

If this restriction is kept in mind, Rawls’s difference principle becomes harmless. All that it amounts to is that if people wish to establish a certain kind of egalitarian institution, they are free to do so. So what?

Nagel fails to see this obvious point because he regards the sovereign state as the only way, under modern conditions, for people to escape from a Hobbesian war of all against all and he also regards the modern democratic state as the best type of sovereign state. But why should we accept these contentions? Couldn’t people establish a strictly limited state or rely on private protection agencies to ensure social peace? If not, why not?

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