Tag Archives: difference principle

Rawls and the 50p taxrate

What would John Rawls’s view be of the cutting of the 50p tax rate? He is often called an ‘egalitarian’ political philosopher; so presumably he would be against the reduction of this tax rate on the very rich?
Not so fast. Have a listen to this item from the TODAY programme, yesterday on Budget morning:


About 90 seconds in, ultra-rich businessman John Caudwell makes a quasi-Rawlsian argument. He says: “What’s best for the country enables the Government to look after the poorest members of society”.
This TODAY interview with John Caudwell, Caudwell’s making of a difference-principle-style argument, suggests once again that Rawls’s political philosophy, which supposedly undergirds the thinking of ‘lefties’ (it is explicitly backed by many including allegedly Obama, Purnell, Stuart White, etc), is actually compatible with extremes of inequality as manifested for instance in the abolition of the 50p tax rate.
Now, it might be responded: what’s wrong with that: IF it can be shown that the tax take goes UP from this group as a whole then it could be a valid move, on Rawlsian grounds. This response shows I think the bankruptcy of the claim sometimes made that Rawlsian thinking is ‘egalitarian’. You can hardly pretend that abolishing the 50p tax rate is egalitarian!
Rawls’s philosophy is at best ‘prioritarian’; it is utterly inegalitarian. Caudwell’s stance shows this.
Anyway: even if the tax take did / does go up, as a result of the abolition of the 50p rate, then it would still be a bad thing to do, to abolish it. Because we would still be creating a more unequal society; and moreover encouraging people to work themselves to death (high tax rates are a good thing inasmuch as they discourage the culture of overwork which grips societies like ours).
Rawlsian liberals don’t like to hear this sort of thing. Witness the furious reaction when I put forward this view before:


But, when one listens to a man like Caudwell making a quasi-Rawlsian argument, then things are pretty clear: We need to do better than Rawls. We ought to be egalitarians. It is pretty sickening if the best that the ‘Left’ can do is back a political philosopher whose thinking is compatible with the still-higher extremes of inequality which George Osborne is now creating.

Rawls rapped

“I know why u homies want to make like John Rawls
You just wish that u were Marxists but u haven’t got the balls”

[Gilbert Ramsay et al, The Philociraptor Rap]

This post is in part a good excuse to cite the epigraph above, which deserves to be much better known. In a somewhat (ahem) direct way, it touches and encapsulates much of my attitude to Rawlsian liberalism.
For a more _academic_ presentation, you might want to read my two papers that, by a bizarre coincidence, came out on the same day last week:
“Why the ecological crisis spells the end of liberalism: The ‘difference principle’ is ecologically unsustainable, exploitative of persons, or empty”, in Capitalism, Nature, Socialism.
“The difference principle is not action-guiding”, in CRISPP 14:4 (pp.487-503).
(Also, my shortly-forthcoming piece on “Beyond an ungreen-economics-based political philosophy: Three strikes against the difference principle”, in the International Journal of Green Economics (2011) Vol. 5, No. 2, pp.167–183. And, of related interest, my “Religion as sedition: On liberalism’s intolerance of real religion”, in Ars Disputandi vol.11, just published last month: http://http://www.arsdisputandi.org/publish/articles/000394/article.pdf .)
For a more popular, shorter, political ‘bloggish’ presentation of the same ideas, see my “No red without green: why any socialism must be an eco-socialism” in the Compass ebook ‘Good Society/Green Society? The Red-Green Debate’. One place that you can find this is 1 scroll down, at: http://www.compassonline.org.uk/news/item.asp?n=13232.
Finally, if you want to see how annoyed all this kind of thing makes Rawlsians, then have a read of my http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/rupert-read/philosophical-and-political-implications-of-spirit-level-response-to-gerry-ha – and the comments thereto. What I point up there is that the Rawlsian difference principle is willing to allow substantial inequalities, because doing so will allegedly be best for the worst off. But if Richard Wilkinson, Kate Pickett, Michael Marmot, Danny Dorling et al are right, then the more substantial the inequalities, the worse off _everyone_ will be, _especially_ the worst off.
We might call this an empirical refutation of the difference principle…

So, homies, where do we/you go from here?