The Rawlsian Four Branches Of Government


About as specific as Rawls gets in A Theory Of Justice concerning his view of a Just Society is when he writes of the four overarching areas (or “branches”) of the government he envisions.

The Rawlsian Four Branches Of Government are the branches of:  1) Allocation  2) Distribution  3) Stabilization , and 4) Transfer.  What is peculiar to Rawls’ philosophy of government is that every single one of these is centered around the concept of Justice.  Other areas which we may think of as falling within the government domain in modern times are not included.


The Allocation Branch

Is “charged with identifying and correcting” […] “the more obvious departures from efficiency caused by the failure of prices to measure accurately social costs and benefits.”  I think he is speaking here of Externalities such as pollution, but perhaps also of Public Goods, such as the funding of national defense.

Also, he says the Allocation Branch will work “to prevent the formation of unreasonable market power” (such as monopolies) and to keep “the price system workably competitive.”

The monitoring of market mechanisms such as correct pricing is an important job for government, says Rawls, because when people feel they are being “exploited” by capitalists, what actually is occurring is the manifestation of “market imperfections.”  “The notion of exploitation is out of place here,” says Rawls.  Instead of some evil genius at work trying to keep a certain segment of the population down,  what is more likely is that something is twisting the marketplace to produce wages in a certain labor segment that are below what they should be.  Government, implies Rawls, should step in and correct this.

Rawls realizes, like I think most of us do, that the only place where human activity runs “perfectly” is in theory, and that includes even our greatest achievements, such as the free marketplace.  It would be folly to insist otherwise.

Says Rawls:

“Those who are at the same level of talent and ability, and have the same willingness to use them, should have the same prospects of success regardless of their initial place in the social system” [and] “there should be roughly equal prospects of culture and achievement for everyone similarly motivated and endowed.”

The Distributive Branch

This branch will use taxes and property rules “to preserve an approximate justice in distributive shares” received by citizens.

However efficient the marketplace, “a competitive price system,” says Rawls, “gives no consideration to needs, and therefore it cannot be the sole device of distribution.”  The competitive determination of total income “ignores the claims of need and an appropriate standard of life.”

Furthermore, Rawls believes that if people do not believe they are being treated with reasonable fairness by the system, “public spiritedness” will be diminished.  Public spiritedness is important,  says Rawls (echoing John Stuart Mill) because without it, “people won’t go beyond mere willingness to submit to laws and government; their ties won’t extend outside family or a narrow circle; they no longer regard each other as associates for cooperative work but view each other as rivals or obstacles.”

Rawls contends that we cannot leave it solely to the marketplace to distribute the compensations of society, for although “a competitive economy gives weight to the precept of contribution,” what the market actually responds to is supply and demand, adjusting the price of labor accordingly.  This is not always the best way to allocate rewards for service, says Rawls, because “a person’s moral worth does not vary according to how many [other suppliers] offer similar skills or [how many buyers] want what he can produce.”  For Rawls, “moral deservingness” of a person does not shift along a demand curve or supply frontier.

Besides, claims Rawls, there is intrinsic conflict between two different notions of Justice many of us hold in our heads simultaneously:  the notion of that people should be rewarded according to their effort, and the notion that people should be rewarded according to their output.  For Rawls, “the precepts ‘to each according to his effort’ and ‘to each according to his contribution’ are contrary injunctions.”

This is not as big of an objection to the virtues of the marketplace as one might at first think.  Rawls maintains that if a true and fair equality of opportunity exists in the society, the difference between effort and contribution will be relatively small, for “the premium earned by those better endowed is far less” when those from the lower tranches of society are allowed to climb up by dent of will and talent and to offer competition unto the silver spooners.

Rawls believes that accumulations of wealth and power into too few hands form vortexes of cancerous material for a society.  The Distributive and Allocation branches would work together “to forestall accumulations of property and power” that would undermine the system.

Rawls believes that even the poorest citizen who is contributing to the common good deserves to receive a certain “Social Minimum” of resources and rewards.  This Social Minimum should be “set at that point which, taking wages into account, maximizes the expectations of the Least Advantaged.”  To achieve this end, government should use transfer payments to supplement incomes so that the prescribed Social Minimum can be met by all.  Rawls separates the payout side of this redistribution scheme into a separate branch he calls the Transfer Branch.

“Once a suitable minimum is provided by transfers,” says Rawls, “it may be perfectly fair that the rest of total income be settled by the price system, assuming that it is moderately efficient and free from monopolistic restrictions and unreasonable externalities have been eliminated”

Rawls is not against, in absolute terms, the passing-on of wealth and property from one generation to the next.  “The unequal inheritance of wealth,” says Rawls, “is no more inherently unjust than the unequal inheritance of intelligence.”  But for Rawls, inheritances are only justified “provided that the resulting inequalities are to the advantage of the Least Fortunate and compatible with liberty and fair Equality Of Opportunity.”

To this end, the Distributive Branch would be authorized to impose inheritance and gift taxes, and to set restrictions on the rights of bequest.  In this manner, the society could work “gradually and continually to correct the distribution of wealth and to prevent concentrations of power detrimental to the fair value of political liberty and fair equality of opportunity.”  For Rawls, it is incumbent upon any society that allows “private ownership of the means of production, property, and wealth” to keep those things “widely distributed” so that no one acquires “a preponderant weight in settling social questions.”

Says Rawls:

“The liberties protected by the principle of Participation lose much of their value whenever those who have greater private means are permitted to use their advantages to control the course of public debate. For eventually, these inequalities will enable those better situated to exercise a larger influence over the development of legislation.”

The last two branches of Rawls’ proposed government are #3 the Stabilization Branch and #4 the Transfer Branch (which I mentioned earlier).  Rawls describes the Stabilization Branch as being concerned with bringing about full employment and enabling the free choice of occupation, but he does not much describe it.  Perhaps he means this branch would work to provide equal opportunity for everyone to acquire the skills they will need in the marketplace?  I see this branch as closely related to the Allocation Branch.  Perhaps one way to think of it is that while the Allocation Branch would work to make sure that the society produces what Rawls calls “careers open to talents,” the Stabilization Branch would concentrate on enforcing what Rawls terms a “fair equality” of opportunity.

Rawls proposes that the Transfer Branch should be responsible for providing the Social Minimum to the Least Advantaged, guaranteeing a certain level of well-being and being mostly occupied with honoring the “claims of need.”  This seems to me to be mostly the Purser’s Office of the Distributive Branch.

Lastly, Rawls mentions the need for what would basically form a “fifth branch” of government.  Unlike the first four, it does not concern itself solely with Rawls’ inclusive definition of “Justice,” but would appear to house the government’s attempts to manage the economy.  Rawls admits that this shadow branch would act “independent from what Justice requires,” but would instead arrange to provide “Pubic Goods” where the market “breaks down.”  Does he mean here things like national security?  It is unclear.

This would be an elected branch—the only one he specifically mentions that would be a representative body; it could only pass edicts when its members reached a vote that was near unanimity.

At one point, Rawls claims that “the Exchange Branch is only a trading arrangement” (?!).  Of all his big ideas, this may be where Rawls fails most noticeably in adequately explaining to us exactly what he has in mind.  It is also the only time he steps outside his main aim, which is the description of a Just Society.  The whole section just doesn’t set well beside the general theme and ideas of the book.  I do know that government management of the economy is a dangerous fire to play with, so I wish Rawls had taken more pains to justify this shadow branch.  Instead, it feels as if this section was lately and badly appended to the rest of the book.


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

Perhaps The Greatest Work Of Philosophy Of The Last Fifty Years

John Rawls And The Veil Of Ignorance

Decoupling Inequality from Injustice

Rawls’ View Of Good Government

Last Thoughts On Rawls’ Theory Of Justice


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