More Rawls Blogging: Fudging Ideal Theory

— Trying to finish this damn Rawls paper. So, let me tell you, I think A Theory of Justice pivots on a pretty big weasel on Rawls's part. He says that he's involved in an exercise in ideal theory. What's ideal theory? According to Rawls, it's “strict compliance theory.” That is, we imagine the best set of principle by which to govern the basic structure of society on the assumption that everyone will comply with the requirements of those prinicples. You might think this is fanciful, and Rawls is worried that it's fanciful, too. That's why he spend basically the last third of Theory trying to show that it's not just crazy to think there could be a society where everyone complied with almost all the rules almost all the time. So Rawls tries hard. He gives us a self-reinforcing feedback loop between the sense of justice — the moral capacity that disposes us to accept and adhere to the principles — and the basic structure. It's an especially robust homeostatic mechanism because, under the right conditions, citizens recognize that their personal good is in part constituted by compliance with the prinicples of justice. Since people will tend to do what is to their personal benefit, they'll be happy to comply with the principles, and thus, as a collectivity, will deliver a very sturdy kind of stability tending to correct short-term disturbances in the system.

Now, this is just great. But Rawls seems never to have REALLY believed in it. For one thing, if Rawl's is hoping to demonstrate the legitimacy of the redistributivist welfare state, he seems to have badly overshot the mark. If the argument for the congruence of the right and good (for recognizing the virtue of justice as being supremely regulative of one's good) is any good, then it looks like Rawls has a pretty impressive argument for the withering away of the state. If our sense of justice can become so well coached that we will all voluntarily comply with the principles, then what's the point of state coercion? Then what's the point of the state?

Right at the very end (has anyone ever really read Theory right through the end?), Rawls sounds a pessimistic tone about really full compliance and admits that its pretty likely that some people will still find that it's not to their good to comply with the principles. Rawls then argues that, well, the state will just have to MAKE these people comply, since the principles overall will still be collectively rational as long as the principles aren't out of synch with TOO many people's good. So he brings in coercive mechanisms. But he tries to bring them while sort of not having to use them:

even in a just society it is reasonable to admit certain constraining arrangements to insure compliance, but their main purpose is to underwrite citizens' trust in one another. These mechanisms will seldom be invoked and will comprise but a minor part of the social scheme. [TJ, 2nd ed, p. 505]

Rawls fudges on ideal theory as strict compliance theory rather earlier as well:

Thus under even reasonably ideal conditions conditions, it is hard to imagine, for example, a successful income tax scheme on a voluntary basis. Such an arrangement is unstable. The role of an authorized public interpretation of rules supported by collective sanctions is precisely to overcome this instability. By enforcing a public system of penalties government removes the grounds for thinking that others are not complying with the rules. For this reason alone, a coercive sovereign is presumably always necessary, even though in a well-ordered society sanctions are not severe and may never need to be imposed. Rather the existence of the penal machinery serves as men?s security to one another. This proposition and the reasoning behind it we may think of Hobbes's thesis.

. . . It suffices to note that ideal theory requires an account of penal sanctions as a stabilizing device and indicates the manner in which this part of partial compliance theory should be worked out. [TJ, pp. 211-212]

The curious thing about the passage on taxation is that the way Rawls characterizes strict compliance theory, it's not obvious why taxation is necessary at all. People will be so disposed to voluntarily contribute whatever is necessary to satisfy the difference principle. Rawls clearly has a problem with his own idea of strict compliance theory, and is really reading it as as something like “a whole lot of” compliance theory. Indeed, he NEEDS enough non-compliance to necessitate the state as a mechanism for solving assurance problems. Without enough non-compliance, there's nothing for the state to do. But then there's a BIG difference between strict compliance theory and “just enough non-compliance to need the state to get enough compliance for collective rationality” theory.

More on not-exactly-strict-compliance theory here:

The sense of justice leads us to promote just schemes and to do our share in them when we believe that others, or sufficiently many of them, will do theirs. But in normal circumstances a reasonable assurance in this regard can only be given if there is a binding rule effectively enforced. Assuming that the public good is to everyone?s advantage, and one that all would agree to arrange for, the use of coercion is perfectly rational from each man?s point of view. . . . The need for the enforcement of rules by the state will still exist even when everyone is moved by the same sense of justice. . . . In a large community the degree of mutual confidence in one another?s integrity that renders enforcement superfluous is not to be expected. [TJ, pp. 236-7]

But look how uncomfortable Rawls seems to be. You can't justify the welfare state without the state. So he concedes the likelihood of enough non-compliance to give the state a theoretical purchase. But then he doesn't really want to depend on state coercion to get anything done, because then his notion of ideal theory really does just fly out the window. So he tries to squeeze “penal sanctions” into ideal theory as a “stabilizing device.” So the coercive state just lurks in the background. It doesn't actually DO anything: “…sanctions are not severe, and may never need to be imposed.” “These mechanisms will seldom be invoked and will comprise but a minor part of the social scheme.”

Why is this important? Well, I think Rawls largely evades classical liberal worries about state power by shifting back and forth between truly strict compliance theory and his just-enough-non-compliance theory. If he sticks with strict compliance theory, then he really can't derive much more than voluntaryist anarchism. Yet if he's really serious about the elements of partial compliance within ideal theory, he's going to have to say a lot more about the way state institutions are structured in order to satisfy the substantive requirements of the two principles. But he seems to want to keep the door closed on these questions.

Nevertheless, if you're going to get some non-compliance in general, then you're going to get some non-compliance by the agents of the state. How are we going to account for this in the stability argument? And if coercion is necessary, even if only minimally so, then some citizens will have to be granted rights to coerce other citizens. And this brings in a form of inequality that is prima facie much more troubling relative to our considered moral judgments than economic inequality. The reason that we need coercion at all is because there will be some non-compliance. But then we should expect some non-compliance by those granted the power to coerce. But non-compliance with principles designed to prevent the abuse of coercive powers entails some abuse of coercive powers. Surely our considered judgments in reflective equilibirum require the minimization of the abuse of coercive powers. And this may require the minimization of opportunities for coercion, which may mean limitation of the size and scope of the state. These limitations may entail that state-coerced mechanisms for satisfying the difference principle may not be legitimate, although the difference principle may remains binding on us if other voluntary mechanisms are available. I think that given a mostly Rawlsian schema, we can avoid conlclusions like this (not saying that this one in particular actually comes through) only by whistling and conspicuously averting our gaze when Rawls does his fancy-but-sketchy footwork on what he really means by ideal theory.

  • simonkinahan

    Yeah. I think Megan’s writing on healthcare reform is pretty much completely worthless, but that Ames piece is not merely worthless by obnoxious to boot. I had to stop reading after his extensive explanation of the fact that Megan’s father once had a job to prevent my brain from leaking out of my eyes.