A Conversation for The Political Philosophy of John Rawls
EwenMc Started conversation Dec 8, 2004
Very interesting - I'll read some more about Rawls. Thanks for the article!
I'd be interested in what others think of 'altruistic punishment' in this context. This is the idea describing how people have an urge to punish freeloaders within society, even if administering the punishment costs yourself to some extent.
Rawl supposes that we will decide on a society that provides the best possible outcome for the least well-off. What if the 'least well-off' do not 'deserve' a good outcome? What cost would I be willing to pay to ensure that everyone got what they deserved? And who decides what people deserve? On what criteria is this decision made?
(George Harrison made the point concisely: Asked if he still believed that 'All you need is love'? he said 'No. All you need is justice.' Good point, but much more easily said than done.)
Is this a flaw in the development of Rawls' argument from 'veil of ignorance' to 'the best outcome for the least well-off'?
A very good question.
I think that the question of freeloading or 'free-riders' is a bit of a problem for Rawls' theory, but I think there are a number of responses that can be made on his behalf, depending on why we think that a person shouldn't have the high social minimum. I suppose the classic freerider would be someone who had the talent to work and to contribute but decided not to do anything, and instead decided that the minimum was attractive enough, and they would rather do nothing than work and have more.
One response would be to say that such a person is somehow a loser in the natural lottery, and therefore isn't to blame. Another would be to look at the person's whole life - this kind of idleness is sometimes a phase that some young people go through. If they'll snap out of it and sort themeselves out then over the course of their whole life they will have contributed enough.
Economically it wouldn't be too much of a problem if there weren't very many people like this, but if there were a lot I think the standard of living for the least well off would start to drop (along with everyone else's) as there would be less to go round. Perhaps at this point the government might set the minimum at a lower level in an attempt to stop it sinking further, and perhaps this would be enough to motivate people to stop free riding. Perhaps the system would right itself if there were enough of them, but this wouldn't stop small numbers taking advantage.
I suppose my response would be to say that the actual number of free riders would be very small, because I think most people actually like work and the kind of social status and meaning that it gives to people. That's why unemployment is so bad for self-esteem. I think also that some people who are thought to be freeloading might actually not be - maybe there are other factors at work which prevent them from contributing; depression, low self-esteem, lack of talent, lack of opportunties, fear of failure and so on. At least some of those who appear lazy might really be losers in the natural lottery to a greater or lesser extent.
I think having a small group of free riders isn't neccesarily a problem. I can quite see why it irritates many people, but if the general outcome is a much fairer, more equal, and more just society I think that tolerating a small number of free riders wouldn't be too big a price to pay.
It is interesting how strong people's feelings are about people who sponge off the state or off others and just take without contributing anything. But it seems strange to me that some people would feel so strongly about the idle poor when they don't feel nearly as strongly about the idle rich.
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