Sidebar to The Fourth Revolution

Richard Henry Tawney (1880–1962) was a British historian who spent most of his career at the London School of Economics. He wrote widely on economic history, sociology, and current affairs. A Christian socialist, he was a critic of “the acquisitive society”—the title of one of his more popular books.

“If society is to be healthy,” he wrote, “men must regard themselves, not primarily as the owners of rights, but as trustees for the discharge of functions and the instruments of a social purpose.” He was one of the most prominent and influential of the socialist thinkers and activists who moved Britain to adopt the welfare state.

John Rawls (1921–2002) was a Harvard political philosopher whose book A Theory of Justice (1971) has had an enormous impact in academic philosophy, political theory, law, and related fields. Rawls devised a complex argument for the welfare state, based on a thought experiment. Imagine that all of us convened to choose the political institutions for our society. But now imagine that each of us were somehow kept from knowing who we actually are—what parents we were born to, what talents or defects we were born with, what things we valued and worked for in life, what opportunities we had. Behind this “veil of ignorance,” Rawls argued, people would have no way to “vote” for institutions that favored their particular interests; they could rely only on a general sense of what is fair in general, fair to everyone.

Under these circumstances, Rawls believed that people would choose a society in which there is a high degree of freedom and equal opportunity, but in which differences in wealth and income are allowed only insofar as the inequalities result in benefits to “the least advantaged.” In defending this stricture, which he called “the difference principle,” Rawls claimed that successful people do not really earn the wealth they produce because they did not produce the native abilities and character traits that enabled them to succeed. As a determinist, he claimed that such people were just lucky in nature’s distribution of talents and traits:

      We see then that the difference principle represents, in effect, an agreement to regard the distribution of natural talents as a common asset and to share in the benefits of this distribution whatever it turns out to be. Those who have been favored by nature, whoever they are, may gain from their good fortune only on terms that improve the situation of those who have lost out. (
A Theory of Justice,
      page 101
.
    )

For an excellent analysis of Rawls’s theory, see the 2001 article " Blind Injustice ," by Eric Mack, in Navigator magazine; and Ayn Rand ’s essay “An Untitled Letter,” in Philosophy: Who Needs It.


The above sidebar appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of
The New Individualist.

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David Kelley

About The Author:

Author: David Kelley
David Kelley is the founder and executive director of The Atlas Society. A professional philosopher, teacher, and best-selling author, he has been a leading proponent of Objectivism for more than 25 years.

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