[Editor’s Note: The following is a guest contribution by Felix Bungay, a student at the University of Cambridge reading an MPhil in Intellectual History and Political Thought.]
When looking at contemporary liberal political thought, philosophers like Samuel Freeman and John Tomasi like to play up the difference between classical liberals, like Hayek and Friedman, and high liberals, like Rawls and Nagel.
I happen to think there’s more common ground between the two groups than is commonly perceived. Let’s say, to engage in a thought experiment, we locked Rawls, Freeman, Friedman and Hayek in a room and we asked them to come up with some public policy positions. We’ll give them food and water, but they can’t leave the room until they all unanimously agree on a position. What policies (if any) would arise – or would they all just be stuck in the room arguing for eternity?
If I said they would agree to scrap the minimum wage, have a wholly private school system funded by vouchers and scrap most welfare and replace it with a simple negative income tax, would you believe me?
When discussing fair equality of opportunity in A Theory of Justice, Rawls says that the “Government tries to insure equal chances of education and culture for persons similarly endowed and motivated either by subsidising private schools or by establishing a public school system.” Significantly, Rawls himself does not think that the government needs to provide education or necessarily establish a public school system to fulfil the requirements of equal opportunity; a fully private school system is not ruled out. As Samuel Freeman says, Rawls’s “writings imply that a publically funded and regulated but still entirely private education system (for example, a voucher system) would be compatible with FEO.” Milton Friedman would be jumping for joy.
What about the minimum wage then? Well in an interview with PBS, Samuel Freeman said Rawls was opposed to the minimum wage (meanwhile the Economist tells us that Obama’s plan to raise the minimum wage makes him a Rawlsian – that’s poor scholarship): “He [Rawls] thought we ought to get rid of a minimum wage and let the labor market just go as low as it would and let employers just pay two, three dollars an hour if they could and let the government come in and supplement that.”
And what form did Rawls believe this supplement ought to take? Well, he again drew on Milton Friedman and argued for a negative income tax. When discussing the institutions associated with the second principle (chapter 5 of ToJ), Rawls says that “the government guarantees a social minimum either by family allowances and special payments for sickness and unemployment, or more systematically by such devices as a graded income supplement (a so-called negative income tax).”
So while Rawls, Freeman, Friedman and Hayek may not be best buds, there is perhaps more ground for positions associated with the “free market right” to be found in the work of Rawls than either classical or high liberals commonly discuss. Rawls the deregulatory school choice enthusiast is quite a different tale from the one you normally hear.