John Rawls’ View Of Good Government


In A Theory Of Justice, John Rawls envisions a society in which “men agree to share one another’s fate.”  To satisfy their hopes and desires, not only will they learn to work together more or less efficiently and more or less without violence, but they will want to work together because they will understand that they can get more out of life working with each other than against.

Rawls also realizes that, just as people can shape their society, their society can shape them.  Therefore, we want to be careful just what sort of society we build for ourselves.  The social system we create, says Rawls, “shapes the wants and aspirations that its citizens come to have.”  What the system rewards, the people will become, and what it punishes, the people will cease to be, or as Rawls puts it, “how men work together now to satisfy their present desires affects the desires they will have later on, the kind of persons they will be.”  For Rawls, then, the goal is not necessarily to create the most efficient society, but the most noble.

“What men want,” he says, “is meaningful work in free association with others.”  Yes, men operate according to self-interest, but we also possess sympathy— and according to both Hume and Rawls, this capability of feeling the pains of others is what enhances our concern for Justice and helps to motivate us to move beyond our own, short-term and petty desires.  Furthermore, both Kant and Rawls believe that when we fail to see the big picture and behave in a selfish or unjust manner, we are actually cheapening ourselves and we know it;  we feel this cheapening of self as Shame.  “Such actions,” says Rawls, “strike at our self-respect, our sense of our own worth,” for we know that “we have acted as though we belonged to a lower order.”

Rawls believes that most people would accept a society wherein they and their neighbors could act in their own self-interest or in the interests of their family or clan, limited only by the pervading sense of Justice.  The proper sense of Justice to be cultivated in such a society is one that balances desires and limits only those freedoms that intrude upon the freedoms of others.

This “sense of Justice” would supersede even the will of the majority.  Rawls believes that “there is nothing to the view” […] “that what the majority wills is right.”  In the marketplace, what the majority wants, the majority gets (people “voting” with their dollars), but Rawls believes a different principle operates in the realm of politics.

“Despite certain resemblances between markets and elections,” says Rawls, “the ideal market process and ideal legislative procedure are different in crucial respects.  They are designed to achieve different ends, the first leading to efficiency, the latter if possible to justice.”  In politics there is what Rawls calls “the priority of the Right over the Good.”  Even if the majority desire certain things, if those things violate the sense of Justice, then these desires simply “have no value” for Rawls and carry no weight in political arguments.

Because men are not angels, and because our sympathy and wisdom are limited and inconsistently applied, we will find it necessary to implement a government with coercive powers even in the best society.  In large part, says Rawls, this is because each person wants to make sure that others besides himself are carrying their fair share of the load.  No one wants to play the sucker, playing by the rules while others flaunt them with impunity.  And in truth, each of us would find it tempting to skirt the rules if there were little fear of negative consequences for doing so.

Rawls points out that “each person’s willingness to contribute is contingent upon the contribution of others.   Therefore, to maintain public confidence” […] “some device for administering fines and penalties must be established.  It is here that the mere existence of an effective sovereign, or even the general belief in his efficacy, has a crucial role.”

Government will also serve to arbitrate between competing claims and desires and to ensure some sort of fairness in the system.  “Although society is a cooperative venture for mutual advantage,” says Rawls, “it is typically marked by a conflict, as well as an identity, of interests.  There is an identity of interests since social cooperation makes possible a better life for all than any would have if each were to try to live solely by his own efforts.” [But] “there is a conflict of interests since men are not indifferent as to how the greater benefits produce by their collaboration are distributed.”

A good government will have three major jobs according to Rawls; it will:  1) guarantee basic rights, 2) assign basic duties, and 3) determine the division of advantages that result from the combined efforts of the members of the society.

Rawls believes that the society best suited for happiness and justice will guarantee to every rational citizen:  1) equal citizenship status and political liberties, 2) freedom of thought,  3) equal opportunity (including access to education and culture), 4) free choice of occupation, 6) and a guaranteed “Social Minimum” or living standard.

He imagines that most of our day-to-day material needs will go through the marketplace, and that “all regimes will normally use the market to ration out the consumption goods actually produced.” Rawls believes that government simply can’t handle something as complex as the national economy, and that any system other than the free market used for managing the supply of goods and services would be “administratively cumbersome.”  It is, however, okay –and indeed most likely necessary– for government to police “the conduct of firms and private associations” in order to prevent “the establishment of monopolistic restrictions and barriers to the more desirable positions” of the society.

Rawls sees a society that would offer both the carrot and stick to “guide men’s conduct for mutual advantage.”  The marketplace would provide the carrot, encouraging by profits and good wages those activities that are for the good of everyone, and the criminal system would provide the stick by punishing transgressions of those actions that “ought never to be done.”

Another role for government for Rawls would be the area of Public Goods.  Public Goods for Rawls are those things that are provided to all citizens “in the same amount,” such as national defense.  Rawls points-out that people “cannot be given varying protection depending on their wishes,” says Rawls; national defense and other public goods “are public and indivisible,” and therefore “must be arranged-for through the political process and not through the market.”

Rawls thinks that the (realistically) ideal society will support and supply education not just for its value to a thriving and competitive economy, but for “the role of education in enabling a person to enjoy the culture of his society and to take part in its affairs, and in this way to provide for each individual a secure sense of his own worth.”

Rawls, however, does not go so far as to think government should subsidize “high culture” for society’s elites.  Says Rawls:  “The principles of Justice do not permit subsidizing universities and institutes, or opera and the theater, on the grounds that these institutions are intrinsically valuable, and that those who engage in them are to be supported even at some significant expense to others who do not receive compensating benefits.  Taxation for these purposes can be justified only as promoting directly or indirectly the social conditions that secure the equal liberties and as advancing in an appropriate way the long-term interests of the Least Advantaged.”

“There is no more justification,” continues Rawls, “for using the state apparatus to compel some citizens to pay for unwanted benefits that others desire than there is to force them to reimburse others for their private expenses.”

In my next post I hope to talk more specifically about the four (or really, five) branches of government that Rawls proposes for his envisioned Just Society.


Other Hammering Shield articles on A Theory Of Justice by John Rawls:

The Greatest Work Of Philosophy In The Last Fifty Years

John Rawls And The Veil Of Ignorance

Decoupling Inequality From Justice

The Rawlsian Four Branches Of Government

Last Thoughts On Rawls’ Theory Of Justice


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