John Rawls and the Cancer of Extreme Inequality

Presently, I am slogging through John Rawls‘ “A Theory of Justice“, the brunt of which rests on these two basic requirements of a just society:

First, each person is to have an equal right to the most basic extensive set of liberties comparable with the liberties of others.

Second, social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage and b) attached to positions and offices open to all…

The first appears rather standard, particularly to an American. Liberties and rights should be guaranteed to apply to all citizens in an equal fashion.

In practice, of course, the easiest way to circumvent this requirement is to play fast and loose with definition of citizenship itself. This phenomenon should be very familiar to an American, particularly in an age where rights are happily denied to those labelled as “illegal,” despite participation in our economic system, which is the very root of out national identity.

The second is more interesting. Rawls accepts inequality, but argues that it is only permissible when it benefits everyone, and when opportunities to move on the social ladder are open to everyone.

Clearly, if we take Rawls’ requirements as dogma, the United States in 2012 has a serious problem. The United States would be a prime example of an unjust society. Our level of inequality benefits only a select few. Our level of inequality is cancerous.

One could argue that it always has been, though I would also argue that we made serious inroads for a while (thank you labor, thank you unions). However, The economic tides have very much turned against individuals seeking to move up.

I keep returning to the situation of adjunct instructors, and how the phenomenon is completely unspectacular in the grand scheme of things and indicative of this cancerous growth of economic inequalities and therefore, power inequalities.

Inequality is wildly popular in the US. Hollywood made an industry out of telling stories of people with lives and abilities vastly superior to our own. Jesus can walk on water, we have to swim. It’s also true, that a certain amount of inequality is necessary.

What proponents of the current level and growth of inequality miss (and they are clearly legion), is that the extremely wealthy in the United States are no longer constrained by national borders. Free marketers make the assumption that once all resources move to a select few, the market will collapse and reset. This is the heart of neo-classical economics. If things get really bad, the system will fix itself. But what if the winning players can just quit the game?

As an example, this idea of a “resetting system” certainly hasn’t worked for Michigan. Why? Michigan (and least of all for Detroit) isn’t a closed system! The wealthy of Michigan are free to invest is other more profitable areas, other states or countries, while the not so wealthy at home are left in the dust and without capital. The point is, the rich have many choices. We don’t have that many.

Mr. Romney is the inequality candidate. In fact, he feels that people (like me) screaming of the problems of inequality are just “envious.” Personally, I don’t give a shit about his dancing horse. I just want non-employer sponsored affordable health care and reasonable wages for my fellow Americans.

Granted, Mr. Romney has never been poor so we should wonder why anyone should believe him when he speaks on the subject. Vote for him, and you, well, vote for him.

About Pete Larson

Researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Lecturer in the University of Michigan School of Public Health and at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I do epidemiology, public health, GIS, health disparities and environmental justice. I also do music and weird stuff.

One response to “John Rawls and the Cancer of Extreme Inequality”

  1. Paul Weithman says :

    I was a student of Rawls’s but have never before seen the lovely picture of him that accompanies this posting. Could you tell me the source? You can notify me privately by email if you like.

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