Economics, Social Justice

Hayek on Hayek on Rawls

Obviously people on this blog like both Hayek and social justice. One thing we sometimes observe is that Hayek made kind remarks about Rawls’s conception of justice in Volume II of Law, Legislation and Liberty despite the fact that the book is devoted to showing that the idea of social justice doesn’t make any sense. Well, apparently James Buchanan asked him about this discrepancy and someone put it on Youtube! It’s super short.

Hayek makes it sound like he read A Theory of Justice in this video. I’m not sure he did. But his remarks are interesting. In some of Rawls’s earlier papers (Hayek cites Rawls’s 1963 paper, “Constitutional Liberty and the Concept of Justice” that I can’t find an ungated link to), he made some critical remarks about trying to use institutions to select particular distributive outcomes and argued in favor of selecting general rules whose justification did not depend on achieving a particular outcome.

Buchanan and Hayek think Rawls changed his mind in A Theory of Justice. I’m not sure he did. He says he didn’t, though the institutions of property-owning democracy described in TJ certainly look like they’re trying to select outcomes in the way Hayek doesn’t like.

In any case, it’s interesting because it sorta resolves a lacunae in Hayek’s work, one that he alludes to in the footnotes in LLLII.

HT: Grandmaster Thrash

Published on:
Author: Kevin Vallier
  • Christopher Nelson

    This has been floating around for years. It’s part of a larger UCLA oral history project; Buchanan is only one of several interviewees. UFM has the entire series available online. The official UCLA transcript is available here: Enjoy!

    • Kevin Vallier

      Too bad it didn’t make it up here sooner! Hopefully that’s remedied.

  • Fernando Teson

    I recently read Law, Legislation, and Liberty, and was puzzled by Hayek’s remarks about Rawls. It seems to me the two are irreconcilable. There no question that Rawls (aside from his merits, which are many) was a big time statist.

    • Vangel

      Merits? Yes, he was a very smart man. But he was not all that rational when it came to social justice. He refused to see that it is not compatible with liberty.

      And that is why I am so puzzled about the fascination with Raws by so many supposed libertarians. I think that he figured out that he could not justify his narrative so became more and more muddled with time and began to use ambiguous words and phrases without meaningful content. Hayek is right. It is ideological muddle without meaning.

    • Christopher Morris

      I talked to Buchanan about this — not sure how long ago, perhaps early 80’s. He picked up the proceduralist side of Rawls — no right answer independent of the procedure. I thought that this is what motivated Hayek’s remark also. But Theory is quite clear that Rawls was not an “interventionist” of the sort that would have legislators or judges applying the difference principle to questions before them. Once a just “basic structure” was set up, one was to refer to the particular rules of the institutions (e.g., the rights accorded thereby) and comply with them, not the difference principle. One would expect Buchanan to have appreciated that. (My memory of the text may be mistaken. I think Buchanan’s hostile review of Nozick may be relevant to this discussion.)

      Fernando is right that Rawls was a statist in a number of ways. He simply too for granted that just societies would be states. A remarkable assumption in the late sixties, but baffling today.

      • Vangel

        Rawls was a statist because his egalitarianism requires intervention by a state. His views are incompatible with libertarian principles.

        • Kevin Vallier

          I don’t blame you for this, but I have blogged a LOT on Rawls at BHL. Here are reasons to think you’re wrong about Rawls.

          • Vangel

            I know that many left libertarians are fascinated by Rawls and think him a great thinker. The problem is that Rawls’ work ultimately leads towards totalitarianism because there is no way for his redistribution programs to be applied in the real world without the use of force that will be wielded by a political elite.

            As David Gordon has pointed out, Rawls’ own arguments undermine his positions. If Rawls can argue that redistribution is not required between two liberal democratic societies that take different paths and wind up at very different levels of wealth why is not the same argument not applicable within those societies? After all, if a basic point has been reached where an individual has what is required to sustain life why does those that have earned much more required to give them a share of those earnings? And where exactly are the divisions that make redistribution unnecessary? If the people of Liechtenstein are under no obligation to help the Austrians why are New Yorkers supposed to transfer their wealth to help the unfortunate in Michigan?

            Rawls’ ideas are clearly not workable in any practical way because they would require a large state apparatus to administer. Imagine the number of bureaucrats that would be required to determine what is fair in all parts of society?
            What is worse is that Rawls’ arguments fail logically. Instead of dealing with the issue of what an individual may not do in order to limit conflict over scarce resources he tries to move the debate to what kind of rules would be considered just and fair by people hidden behind a vail of ignorance. The trouble is that even if we accept the starting point as legitimate it is easy to see that Rawls’ conclusions are easy to dismiss because he failed to consider approaches that he did not favour. I see nothing that a system based on natural rights cannot accomplish more effectively than a Rawlsian system even if it could work without producing a large state apparatus that would censor actions not deemed fair or equitable based on some arbitrary judgment made by a government bureaucrat that has managed to put his bias aside and has no social or political goals that s/he wishes to promote.

            I think that left libertarians like Rawls because he gives them a way out. They know that there is no way to really justify redistribution schemes if individual rights were to be protected. So they dismiss Rothbard and other proponents so that they can use Rawls’ ambiguity to justify redistribution schemes. The problem is that such schemes cannot ever be workable, which is why left libertarianism winds up at a dead end.

          • Kevin Vallier

            You need to read the post. There is far more to Rawls than the argument for his two principles and his case for property-owning democracy. I have criticized both on the blog, again at length.

          • Vangel

            Yes, there is more to Rawls. But that does not change the fact that he was a muddled thinker and a big time statist. And I did look at the post, thank you. I did agree with much of it. But that does not change my judgment on Rawls’ deficiencies or my conclusion about why libertarians on the left have such a high regard for him.

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