Should Occupy Wall Street Go Rawlsian?

9780674880146Steven Maize argues the case in the NYT's Opinionator:

To their credit, protestors have recently begun debating which specific demands the movement should make, but their conversations appear to be unguided by any deeper wisdom. A perfect intellectual touchstone would be the work of John Rawls, the American political philosopher who was one of the 20th century’s most influential theorists of equality. Rawls named his theory “justice as fairness,” and emphasized in his later writings that its premises are rooted in the history and aspirations of American constitutionalism. So it’s a home-grown theory that is ripe for the picking.

Despite providing a remarkable venue for what Al Gore called a “primal scream of democracy,” Occupy Wall Street is leveraged too heavily on the rhetoric of rage rather than reciprocity. Rawls would argue that Occupy is fully justified in its criticism of the political and economic structures that propagate massive concentrations of wealth; he saw the “basic structure” of society as the “primary subject of justice.” But Rawls would lament the tendency of the “99 percent” to misdirect their energies into hatred of individuals in the 1 percent. He would have them save their hostility for the policies and institutions that have permitted only the wealthiest to enjoy significant gains from the past two decades of economic growth.

Rawls’s boldest claim — that inequality in society is only justified if its least well-off members fare better than they would under any other scheme — could provide a lodestar for the protests. Rawls was no Marxist: this “difference principle” acknowledges that a productive, free society will be home to at least some degree of inequality. But the principle insists that if the rich get richer while wages and social capital of the poor and middle class are stagnant or falling, there is something seriously wrong.

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