Amsterdam: Flaws in Rawls’ Arguments

Until recently, American philosopher John Rawls has been the main guru of the Left, Professor Hannes H. Gissurarson submitted at a lecture in Amsterdam on 20 April 2023. The venue was the boardroom of the old Amsterdam stock exchange, Europe’s oldest stock exchange. Although Rawls had a point in that poverty was definitely a social evil, Gissurarson conceded, there were serious flaws in his argument that under a veil of ignorance rational human beings would negotiate between them a social contract which would leave the worst off as well off as they could be. Why should the negotiations only favour the worst off? Why should the negotiators be so risk-averse as only preparing for the worst, and not hoping for the best? Could a plausible outcome not rather be a safety net under which nobody would fall, but above that an income distribution by choice? Was it not relevant how individuals had fallen into the group of the worst off? If it was by sloth or gluttony, then they deserved to be there. How far should concern for others extend? Indeed, who were the others? Should the Dutch try to arrange matters in such a way that the worst off in the Democratic Republic of Congo should be as well off as they could be in comparison with the citizens of the Netherlands? If not, why not?

Gissurarson presented a thought experiment, inspired by Rawls’ theory. Assume that an income distribution according to the theory had been established in Illinois. Then along comes the accomplished and entertaining public speaker and scholar Professor Milton Friedman, an Illinois resident. He advertises public lectures and charges each attendant $100. People flock to his events. In the end, Friedman is left with $100,000, while each of the more than 1,000 attendants has parted with $100. The income distribution is now obviously less equal than it was before. But where is the injustice? Who is worse off? It cannot even be said that the attendants are ‘poorer’ by $100 from the exchange, because they are richer by the intellectual excitement created for them by Friedman. Talented people do not make others worse off: on the contrary, they make them better off by enabling them, at a price, to share in and enjoy their special and unique talents. Mozart did not make Salieri worse off, although Salieri may have resented Mozart’s genius. Gissurarson concluded that the only just distribution of income was distribution by choice, as another American philosopher, Robert Nozick, had proposed. He observed that his example of Friedman was similar to Nozick’s example of a famous basket player, Wilt Chamberlain, which in turn was similar to an example given in William Buckley’s book God and Man at Yale of baseball player Joe DiMaggio.

It was interesting, Gissurarson added, that capitalism passed what could be considered to be Rawls’ test: In what kind of economies are the worst off likely to be best off? A plausible reply could be found in a comparison between different kinds of economies. Gissurarson pointed out that if the economies of the world were divided into quartiles according to economic freedom, it turned out that the 10 per cent lowest-income group in the freest quartile actually enjoyed much higher average income than everybody in the unfreest quartile (as shown by the Index of Economic Freedom, published annually by the Fraser Institute in Vancouver). Thus, as a general rule, the worst off were really best off under capitalism which could be looked upon as an efficient way, indeed in the long term the only way, of providing opportunities for people to better their conditions by their own efforts. Unlike Rawls, however, the Left’s new main guru, French economist Thomas Piketty was not concerned about the poor, but rather about the rich. But since when had wealth become a problem? Gissurarson asked.

Gissurarson’s lecture was held at a meeting which formed a part of the annual Free Market Road Show organised by the Austrian Economics Centre. Others speakers at the well-attended event in Amsterdam were Dr. Eamonn Butler, Dr. Barbara Kolm, and writer Craig Biddle. The meeting was ably organised and promoted by podcaster Robert Valentine and political strategist Stefan Gaillard.

Gissurarson slides in Amsterdam 20 April 2023

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