Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Rawls, Just Savings and Priority Principles

It is sometime now since I last blogged about Rawls.I left the discussion of Theory at that point where Rawls discussed properties of social systems. In this posting, by contrast, still following the logic of tracing the sections of Chapter V of the work (concerned with "distributive shares") I will look at sections 44-46. The first of these sections concerns the principle of "just savings", a principle that, in the last of the sections mentioned, is revealed to put in play a further principle of priority of the principle of equality of opportunity over the difference principle. The middle one of these sections, by contrast, has a more supplementary function in terms of giving reasons why considerations of which generation one belongs to should not be determinative for selection of principles and how this is not a point that violates democratic concern.

Section 44 is ostensibly concerned with "justice between generations" though anyone who has grappled with the questions that attach to this in works at least from Reasons and Persons onwards is highly unlikely to be satisfied with Rawls' treatment. However, if we look at what Rawls actually treats in this section we can see that, whilst much more limited in scope than much work concerned with "future generations", it does provide the basic outlines for a further clarification of one of the principles of justice in an illuminating fashion.

The real question set in the section is described well by Rawls as a concern with the "social system"'s capacity to meet the two principles of justice and this concerns, as he puts it here, an understanding of how the social minimum is set. After mentioning the "common sense" proposal that it be set so as to reach customary expectations, Rawls points out that this provides no guideline concerning when and where such expectations can be accepted as reasonable. By contrast, adoption of the difference principle indicates a means by which distribution can be governed. However, this applies not merely within a generation but also between them. This requires each generation to put aside "a suitable amount of real capital accumulation". And this is the means by which the question of justice between generations arises within the theory of justice.

Having set it out in this way Rawls proceeds to make a series of concessions concerning the need for intuitive guidance when thinking through these questions. So, as is almost instantly admitted, there are "no precise limits" on what the rate of savings should be. But this does not prevent there from being, as Rawls puts it here, "significant ethical constraints" governing the means by which savings are accumulated (note that he does not write of these as "political constraints"). Amongst these constraints are a number of reasons for not governing the mechanism of appropriation of savings by means of the principle of utility, not least because this principle tends to be excessively demanding on present generations.

By contrast to the principle of utility, the theory of justice as understood by Rawls is grounded on seeing the original position as the basis of an appropriate savings principle. Contrary to his earlier remarks in this section, however, Rawls appears not to take the basis of the savings principle to really be the difference principle after all, not least because there is no way to apply it retrospectively to previous generations and since the standing of each generation has to be somehow given place in the theory it might well seem that there has to be a different principle than the difference principle governing justice between generations.

Looked at from the standpoint of the original position there are two ways in which we can imagine the veil of ignorance applying to the question of generations. It is possible to view it from the perspective of present time entry which would favour present generations relative to previous ones or from a standpoint which adopts a principle we could wish any and every generation could have followed. Since, in principle, the veil of ignorance can be sufficiently thick for us not, in any case, to know which generation we belong to, the latter conception of the original position has the advantage for Rawls. And it is on this basis that the question of just savings is approached.

So when the question of savings is broached the means by which it is addressed are in terms of how much savings would be undertaken if we assumed that all other generations had followed the same criterion (a kind of universalisation procedure). Given this formulation the right principle of just savings would thus ensure a schedule was adopted that determined rates. This would affect the degree to which rates could be reasonably set as a wealthier society would have more to spare for savings than a poorer one. However, as noted earlier, the general conception of the level of such savings is left generally intuitive and the "strains of commitment" are invoked as one of the reasons why it would be correct to leave them intuitive. The general rationale for the savings in question also has to be constantly kept in view as one of ensuring that a material base "sufficient to establish effective just institutions within which the basic liberties can be realized". 

The features of the contract approach that are specific with regard to just savings are best captured by saying that it addresses from a standpoint of justice a problem that democratic theory generally has great difficulty comprehending. Given a view that democratic decisions are grounded on reference to present parties there appears no way of ensuring that demands of future generations have any way of being represented at all (and this partly underlines the fascinating difficulties Parfit encountered in Reasons and Persons final part). But the original position does have a way of representing them, as all parties to this position are equally virtual so that differences of generation should not be considered distinct in principle from other differences.

The reason why this equal representation of distinct generations meets a "democratic" demand according to Rawls is that the basic democratic demand is that "what touches all concerns all". Each generation passes on to the next a fair equivalent in real capital by means of just savings. Having pointed out this first element of the contract position Rawls goes on to indicate that the second element concerns the definition of the aim of accumulation that it has adopted which is that such accumulation should be concerned with the attainment and maintenance of just social arrangements. So the just savings principle is a kind of coordination between generations of the means by which these aims can be met. "The savings principle represents an interpretation, arrived at in the original position, of the previously accepted natural duty to uphold and to further just institutions." Finally, given the contract conception there is no special value placed on attaining great abundance since the good society is not now viewed primarily as one with a high material standard of living.

The just savings principle is next related by Rawls to his two principles of justice by means of the reference to the standpoint of the least advantaged in each generation. This requires that the difference principle is constrained by reference to the just savings principle. Once the veil of ignorance has been understood in the appropriately thick manner it has become possible to again see the relationship of the just savings principle to the difference principle but also to comprehend that the application of the difference principle at any given point of time is constrained by reference to the continuing operation of the general coordination between generations that the just savings principle represents.

It is this striking restraint that the just savings principle operates upon the difference principle that leads Rawls to consider in section 45 the introduction of some further remarks concerning "time preference" in order to further make clear the reasonableness of this restraint upon the difference principle. We should not prefer a lesser present to a greater future good simply because of the former's nearer temporal position (again, echoes here are clear of Reasons and Persons though the latter work does, of course, post-date Theory). The just savings principle cannot be distorted in application by loose preference for a given generation. This does not prevent us from assuming interest rates are an appropriate means by which just savings can be measured. But there are no grounds for giving the living a simple preference over those as yet unborn. Collective saving for the future is a public good.

However the questions of "democracy" are again here considered by reference to the actual preferences of a given public at a given present. It is often the case that the demands of such a public are taken to be constitutive of the demos. But Rawls articulates the claim of future generations as a restraint on this preference and indicates that a judiciary informed by principles of justice would reflect this. Further, the first sustained mention of civil disobedience in Theory concerns the appropriateness of resistance to a democratic legislature that overlooked its fiduciary care for future generations.

Section 46 turns next to other cases of the priority of justice now that the priorities that arise from a consideration of just savings have been elucidated. At this point Rawls considers the general conservative case that inequalities of wealth and authority that appear to violate the second principle of justice may be justified if they provide sufficiently large economic and social benefits. Keynes' suggestion that it is an argument of this sort that justifies capitalism is mentioned with the point made that this does not justify the condition of the poorest in the circumstances in question as right but only as preferable to the alternatives. The basic point about the inequalities mentioned by Keynes is that they violate the principle of fair equality of opportunity and more conservative positions such as those of Burke and Hegel are referred to here as indicating rationales for violation of this principle. However it has to be pointed out that this conservative case has to meet a very strong condition, namely, that of showing that elimination of inequalities would limit the opportunities of the disadvantaged in a more serious way than they are presently.

The consideration of these conservative positions is not mentioned here by Rawls in order to reply to them in a systematic sense but to indicate that some recognition of inequality of opportunity may well be built into a basic structure if failure to recognise it would have greater costs and in making this point Rawls refers, as he often does, to the social costs that arise from the simple existence of the structure of family arrangements. Further, recognition of the difference principle and the priority rules that follow from it do not require attainment of perfect equality of opportunity. 

Section 46 concludes with the important "final" statement of the two principles of justice for institutions which includes the formulations not just of the two principles but of their accompanying priority rules. The first principle is now stated in the following way: "Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all". This principle has altered little from earlier formulations and still bears important comparison with the supreme principle of right as stated by Kant in the Doctrine of Right. The second principle is stated, by contrast, in a more extensive manner than previous formulations allowed as follows:
"Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both: (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle, and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity." Notably the difference principle is now explicitly constrained by the just savings principles whilst the principle of fair equality of opportunity, by contrast, is left much as it was in previous formulations.

Finally Rawls states the two priority rules. The first priority rule concerns the priority of liberty or the priority of the first principle of justice over the second. Basic liberties can be restricted, according to the first priority rule, only for the sake of liberty. There are two cases which allow this: "(a) a less extensive liberty must strengthen the total system of liberties shared by all; (b) a less than equal liberty must be acceptable to those with the lesser liberty". The second priority rule concerns the priority of justice over efficiency and welfare but this also mandates that the principle of fair opportunity has priority over the difference principle. There are two cases in which these priorities are expressed: "(a) an inequality of opportunity must enhance the opportunities of those with the lesser opportunity; (b) an excessive rate of saving must on balance mitigate the burden of those bearing the hardship".

With the attainment of the final form of the principles of justice and their accompanying priority rules Rawls reaches a key turning point in Theory. It remains to be seen to what extent and in what way the structure of the rest of the work really belongs to the theory of justice and how it helps us to formulate a political reasoning that contributes to the aims of this theory.

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