Rawls was a radical egalitarian-more radical than he seemed to realize. In A Theory of Justice, his most celebrated book, he famously proposes a way to crystallize our underlying ideas about justice. Imagine that you are asked to choose the basic rules by which society will be run, but without knowing anything about your personal circumstances—how intelligent you are, what talents you have, how rich your parents are, and so on. Rawls argues that from behind this "veil of ignorance" you would choose two key principles.
First is the liberty principle: You would insist on certain basic political and civil liberties to protect your autonomy as a person. Second is the so-called difference principle: You would want to live in a society that made improving the lot of the poor its highest priority. Why? Because the person at the bottom might turn out to be you. More precisely, Rawls argues that people stripped of self-knowledge would choose a system that, so long as it did not infringe basic political liberties, would strive to reduce inequality until cutting it any further would do such harm to the economy that the position of the poorest person would actually be worsened.
Rawls was often described as "left of center." That is putting it mildly. His idea of the just society goes far beyond what any mainstream American liberal would ever dream of proposing, though you would not think so from some of the articles that have appeared in the past two weeks. These articles praise the Harvard University professor and claim support in his writings for various timid liberal agendas. The Rawlsian idea of fairness actually goes far beyond what any European socialist party, to say nothing of the Chinese Communist Party, would nowadays propose.
Economies with elaborate and expensive welfare states and high taxes on the rich—Germany, say, or Sweden—still have very much further to go before they achieve justice, in Rawls's view. Taxes so high that they shrink the economy are fine, so far as the difference principle is concerned. Keep on raising them, channeling the proceeds to the least well-off. It is only when the aggregate loss from high taxation is so vast that redistribution cannot protect the poorest from sharing in the pain that the effort to reallocate income stops.
Wouldn't the liberty principle kick in long before this point was reached? Apparently not. Rawls excluded economic liberties such as property rights from its scope—otherwise, the liberty principle would, from the outset, have flatly contradicted the difference principle that calls for such far-reaching redistribution.
The assault on Rawls was led by Robert Nozick, another giant of 20th-century philosophy, who also died earlier this year. Nozick's theory put rights, including property rights, at the center. In a column in February, I said I thought Nozick made mincemeat of Rawls's theory. But Nozick ended up with a theory of his own whose conclusions were about as bizarre and extreme as Rawls's. Justice, according to Nozick, demands a minimal state. No safety nets at all—extremes of wealth and poverty that would make Saudi Arabia blush. So far as government is concerned, providing physical security is about it. No democracy is ever going to vote for a Nozickian society, any more than it will for a Rawlsian one.