Tag Archives: Rawls

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?

Democracy – what does it mean, and how can we all get some?

2011: Because of the ongoing democratic revolutions in the Middle East, this feels a hugely-exciting time to be alive and to be a thinking person. As I write, in the wake of the victory of the rebels over the appalling Gaddafi regime in Libya, the situation in Syria seems to be tipping a little further in the favour of the incredibly-brave protesters there…
As a philosopher, one thing that I think these revolutions do quite powerfully is throw into greater disrepute the arguments that are periodically made against democracy, or at least against democracy ‘for them’, as opposed to for ‘us’. Such arguments are arguments against trusting (the / ordinary) people with power and responsibility; and this is just very implausible, in an age in which we have comparatively distributed employment, an age in which traditional sources of authority are less sacrosanct, etc. . For my detailed arguments against such distrust, see my recent review essay “Economist-Kings?”, in the _European Review_ (19:1; pp.119-129)…
. (I would love to know what readers of this blog make of my argument there.)
Democracy is in itself a gigantic gamble. But I take it that we take it to be a gamble worth taking. And, furthermore, the alternative is hard to see: for it is increasingly obvious (cf. once more the democratic Arab revolts of 2011) that democratic legitimacy is a _practical requirement_ of governance in a world that values self-expression and is increasingly sceptical of dictatorialism (See on this the argument of R. Inglehart and C. Welzel in their Modernization, Cultural Change and Democracy (Cambridge: CUP, 2005)). Democracy, now: There is no alternative.
The possibility that seems to be increasingly real, in the continuing light of the ‘Arab Spring’, is that pressures for democracy will grow elsewhere in the world too: such as in Africa; …and in Britain… For, as a philosopher, one has of course to ask the question: What does democracy actually mean? One clue of course is etymology: Do the people (the demos) really rule, in this country? See on this…

I believe, as I have recently argued at length in a ‘call to arms’ on the ‘Green Words Workshop’ blog (
– again, I’d welcome readers thoughts on my line of thinking and suggestion for action there), that democracy in its true sense might just be about to start coming to this country too. It will depend on exposing, as I aim to help to do in that piece, the somewhat (ahem) corrupt state of our current democracy; crucially, the way that our current system is dominated by money. As a rare beast, a philosopher who is politically active, I have real experience of this. In the 2009 Norwich North byelection, in which I stood as the Green Party candidate, we raised almost £20000 with which to fight the byelection. This is far far more than the Green Party had ever raised in a byelection previously. But it was only a small fraction of what the LibDems, UKIP and the Conservatives each spent in the byelection campaign. Their access to rich donors and corporate donors made it easy for them to drown voters in paper on the doorsteps (and in billboards) and to crowd the Green Party voice in the campaign out. The Conservatives and Labour moreover moved whole staffing operations out from London to fight the campaign; something which just wasn’t possible for the Greens to do.
If we are to have real democracy as opposed to merely formal democracy (On which, see Norman Daniels’s important criticism of Rawls…
), then the power of big money to deform politics, which is a serious problem in this country and even more serious in some other countries such as the U.S., must be addressed.

And of course, Libya and Egypt and Tunisia and so on will discover this too, soon enough.

[p.s. Forgive the funny formatting of my links here... Still getting used to blogging for myself on WordPress! As I've done it here, each link _follows_ the piece of text that introduces it.]