Thursday, June 18, 2020

Who Receives Rawlsian Transfers?

In his (in)famous review of Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Brian Barry admonishes Robert Nozick for "proposing to starve or humiliate ten percent or so of his fellow citizens (if he recognizes the word) by eliminating all transfer payments through the state, leaving the sick, the old, the disabled, the mothers with young children and no breadwinner, and so on, to the tender mercies of private charity, given at the whim and pleasure of the donors and on any terms that they choose to impose."

I'll set aside the question of whether or not this is a fair criticism of Nozick to simply note that it applies to Rawls as well. Consider Rawls's view that “we are not to gain from the cooperative labors of others without doing our fair share" (A Theory of Justice). This statement seems to imply that those who do not contribute to productive social cooperation have no claim on the fruits of said productive social cooperation. Thus, the Rawlsian society, as much as the Nozickian society, struggles to justify redistribution to, in Barry's terms, "the sick, the old, the disabled."

How does Rawls address this worry? Unfortunately, he merely assumes it away--Rawls stipulates that the sort of person to whom his principles of justice apply is a "fully cooperating member of society" (Political Liberalism). But this is a wholly inadequate response (Rawls has been rightly criticized for this approach.) For the record, I think both Nozick and Rawls are wrong here; however that's a topic for another post. For now, I only want to point out how a widely-accepted objection to Nozick applies with equal force to Rawls.