Working for the Government Does Not Magically Transform Selfish People into Altruists

By: David Gordon

[Unequivocal Justice. By Christopher Freiman. Routledge, 2017. Ix + 157 pages.]

Christopher Freiman has in this brilliant book uncovered a flaw at the heart of much contemporary political philosophy, especially the sort of ideal theory influenced by John Rawls. Freiman wishes “to examine the version of ideal theory that focuses on institutions. More specifically, I’ll investigate the idealizing assumption that institutions function under conditions that exhibit ‘strict compliance’ with justice: that is, conditions in which everyone accepts and abides by the principles of justice.” (p.5)

The objection that Freiman raises to ideal theory is that its advocates face a dilemma. If everyone behaves with perfect justice, the state has no role to play. People will voluntarily comply with the requirements of justice and no coercive agency is necessary. If, as Rawls and his followers assume, people will in the free market act with at most “limited altruism”, then why do they imagine those who control the state will act with perfect justice? (Objectivists and others would raise difficulties here about the connection between justice and altruism; but I will not pursue these worries here.)

An example will clarify Freiman’s argument. A common criticism of the free market is that it fails to produce “public goods” In sufficient quantity. In Freeman’s example, a town is threatened by a flood, Building a levee would benefit the townspeople, but people have an incentive not to contribute to building it. A person who fails to contribute can free ride on those who do. His failure to contribute will make almost no difference, but he cannot be excluded from the benefits of the levee. Unfortunately, everyone will reason in like fashion; and, as a result, the levee will not be built, to the general disadvantage. (Freiman does not discuss difficulties with the concept of public goods of the sort raised, e.g., by Murray Rothbard)

For this reason, Rawls argues, the state must be brought in, to ensure that everyone contributes to the public good. Here Freiman’s challenge arises. Why should one assume that those in control of the state would act in a way more in accord with justice than would actors on the private market? Would they not be at least equally as motivated to act in a self-interested way? If one assumes that the state would act justly, why wouldn’t individuals voluntarily produce the public good? Freiman objects to the failure to observe what he calls, following Geoffrey Brennan and James Buchanan, “behavioral symmetry.” This concept “involves consistently applying your behavioral models across different institutions.” (p.26)

Freiman has made a cogent point; but, in order for this to count as a challenge to ideal theory, we must add the premise, “Justice requires that public goods be produced.” [Of course, this is just a first approximation, but details do not for our purposes matter here] Neoclassical economics would call failures to produce public goods inefficient; but more seems required to show them unjust.

Further, we should distinguish two separate problems for the state and public goods. One is the problem just raised: why assume that, if people on the market act in a self-interested fashion, those in control of the state would not? The other is that to bring into existence democratically a state that follows the principles of justice raises a public goods problem. To do this requires that people vote after careful study of the candidates and issues; but this is costly. Will there not be an incentive to free ride on other voters to do this? To call in the state to solve the public goods problem thus brings in another public goods problem.

This is an ingenious argument, but it applies only to democratic states. But because Rawls himself accepts democracy, he could not evade this argument by appealing to a non-democratic state. (Such states would of course be subject to the earlier argument raised against the state.) Further, Freiman’s argument is valuable for showing that the paradox of voting is stronger than often assumed. In the usual account, the minute chance of determining the outcome in an election with many voters is compared with the costs of voting. It is then concluded that it is irrational to vote. Against this, the costs of voting normally are not high either: so the irrationality, if it exists, is a minor matter. But if Freiman’s point about intelligent voting is taken into account, the costs are much greater.

Freiman applies his fundamental insight to a number of areas stressed by Rawls and his disciples. If, for example, justice requires that everyone have a sufficient amount of certain economic goods, then perfectly just people would voluntarily provide these goods to those who did not have them. The state would have no need to coerce them to do so. If it is countered that the state is needed because people would act from self-interest, not justice, why assume that those in charge of the state would have different motives? Freiman once more decries the double standard used by Rawls and other proponents of ideal theory. He applies his point to other vital areas of Rawlsian justice, including political liberty, fair opportunity, and social equality, to devastating effect; but I will not examine these separately.

At one place in Freiman’s argument, Rawls may have a counter; but the fundamental point raised by Freiman escapes unscathed. Rawls assumes that people have ‘limited altruism.” ”Rawls permits economic inequalities as a means of coaxing more production from the rich because he’s worried about the substitution effect [of leisure for labor] caused by excessive taxation.” (p.57). To this, G.A. Cohen objected that perfectly just people would not be motivated by selfish desires to have more than others.

Freiman thinks that Rawls. by his appeal to limited altruism , has adopted “less stringent idealization” than Cohen, but this is not so. Rawls thinks that justice does not require more from people than he sets forward. He is not, by his lights, offering a compromise between the demands of justice and the exigencies of self-interest. He is rather defending an alternative conception of justice to the one favored by Cohen. But if that is so, Freiman’s basic argument still holds. Ideally just people would voluntarily comply with the demands of justice, as Rawls sees them. There is no need to bring in the state.

Given Freiman’s onslaught, does any role remain for ideal theory? One that suggests itself is to determine the requirements of a just society. Freiman’s argument does not make that inquiry unnecessary.

Unequivocal Justice is not only a book of outstanding merit; it is very well-written as well.

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