Neoliberalism and Rawls’ Theory of Justice

How would you structure the justice in our society today?  One method is to look at a blank canvass of what might become a moral society from an “original position” behind what John Rawls described as “A veil of ignorance” [A Theory of Justice, 1971].

john-rawls original position

Imagine you do not know who you will be in the real world – you might be poor or rich, black, white or brown, male or female, young or old, felon or victim, born today or in 150 years time, etc.

Then consider what sort of justice system you would think is fair for whatever your real position in life will be.  Justice is fairness.

Now ask yourself a few questions about how the justice of the world is structured now – take particular note of power structures – and how that contrasts with your view from behind the veil.  Is our justice – built into the structures of social norms, behaviours, sentiment and legal frameworks – fair?  Think particularly of your ignorance of whether you will be born today, or in 150 years time.

I ask this because – in my view – we have structured deep injustices over the last 30 to 40 years in New Zealand and around the world.  We have allowed more exploitation of our people and our land & sea natural systems upon which – ironically – our long-term society and economy depends.

Ironic because we were told by the priests of the Neoliberal faith that it’s all for the best.  The ‘market’ – all-knowing as it is – will magically allocate and price ‘resources’ as they ought to be allocated.   So if the system is exploited, that is right.  If you are poor, that is right.  If power accumulates and you invade or buy another part of the world far far away, then that is right.  Might is right because the market recognised your ‘merit’, and made you mighty.

John Rawls Veil of Ignorance

We have ‘justified’ that exploitation – an exploitation that cannot be sustained without eventual economic, social and environmental collapse – by 1. that Neoliberal faith, 2. the glorifying of mega-corporate business entities who act for their short-term expedience at the expense of any value that gets in the way of making an immediate profit (never mind even their own great grandchildren), and 3. the scapegoating of the victims; the poor and dispossessed.

Their poverty is apparently either their own choice, or a reflection of their merit in an equal opportunity world where all have the same power and options.  They could have gone to the banks, I was once told, and talked to their old school buddies there, and asked for the billion dollar loan, just like anybody else (I was given that actual excuse once when pointing our that only the already wealthy have the opportunity to buy billion dollar public assets at fire-sale prices, and thereby enrich themselves and impoverish the rest of us).

Then the felons who perpetrate this ‘fair deal’ are given knighthoods.

Neoliberalism is very much implicated in this system of injustice.  Let us consider the following.  Neoliberalism presumes there are no power differentials because that is convenient to model.  Power is far too complex and relational to model easily.

Smith Beware commerceWonderful.  The market is presumed to be always fair.  Problem solved. Who needs an original position behind a veil of ignorance when there is no chance of an unfair outcome.

And so arithmetic convenience overrides truth & questions about reality.  We presume that the world of business is like Adam Smith’s village of bakers and candlestick makers.  Let’s also presume that we can just ignore Smith’s warnings of the need to control the power of corporations and aristocrats, to publicly educate an enlightened and moral populace (What?!  State intervention?!) and to be highly suspicious of merchants anywhere near the making of our laws because they will try to exploit if they are given half a chance.

Neoliberalism also presumes that rational decisions are made through exchange of goods and services within the market.  So if someone makes a lot of money in the short-term out of pillaging the kauri for personal gain, or drift netting the ocean, or depleting or polluting the finite or slow-cycling water ‘resources’, or – sigh – destroying the soils that will not recover for many millennia (in the case of our hill country soils), then that is all fine and good.  People will – apparently – rationally discount the future cashflows at a rational rate, using rational calculations of Net Present Value, and the benefits will accrue to future generations in accordance with the wisdom and justice of the market and private investment.

Except that if you have anything to do with discounted cashflow over intergenerational periods of time using any real rate much over 2% you see the moral nonsense that you can rationally advocate the bankruptcy and extinction of your own family’s future.  Rationalised insanity.

Cutting your own roots.jpg

What bunkum.  Meanwhile the fisheries collapse, forests are pillaged, soils wash or blow way, water systems are depleted and degraded, species go extinct, the functionality of our natural systems teeter on the edge, we run out of key nutrients, and the globe warms and warms.  What could possibly go wrong when we cut our own roots from under ourselves.

Never mind that history has demonstrated that for finite or slow cycling natural systems it is exceedingly profitable to pillage to the point of system collapse, and that such collapses have happened time and time and interminable time again and again and again.

Newfoundland fisheries collapse.jpgNice to ponder upon this when discussing with Neoliberal economists that a forest or soil natural *system* is not the same as a bean farm with a canning plant attached.   Short-term market cycles can be fine for short-feedback systems.  They can be destructive and terminal where the feedbacks take generations, or occur over distant geographical scales, or are positive feedbacks – such as happens all the time in agriculture where a price decline leads to a production increase, which leads to a price decline, ad infinitum – until the social, environmental and economic system collapses (most demonstrably in the US Dustbowl of the 1930s).  The Neoliberals, living as they do with faith, not empirical evidence, will tell you that this couldn’t possibly happen.  Must be the government’s fault, obviously.

Yet it happens …. I’m sorry, I mean to say it happens in the real world, outside the models.

[Also note – please Mr Neoliberal – that you do not adequately describe such ‘natural systems’ by describing them as ‘natural resources’.  The latter (resources) reduces complexity to an inert set of things without function.  Natural systems evokes the considerably more accurate view of processes of energy flows, feedbacks, thresholds and emergence of something with entirely new properties not inherent in any part.  This is the dynamic complex that provides for trivial things – like life itself.  Life is – perhaps unfortunately – not often included in discounted cashflow accounts.  It’s often more profitable to do without it.]

quote-a-just-society-is-a-society-that-if-you-knew-everything-about-it-you-d-be-willing-to-john-rawls-81-28-14Neoliberalism is in direct conflict with Rawls original position in presuming that there is a true meritocracy in play.  Isn’t that wonderful.  Problem of justice solved.  The market will provide.  There is no need for a government-determined justice beyond property rights and obvious violence crimes – because the perfect market and a world of presumed equal opportunity will ensure all the dice of life fall where they ought through fully informed rational choice.

Because there are no power differentials in their models, then there is no need to recognise the real, empirical, industrial, feudal and colonial exploitation of people and natural systems.  All, apparently, willing buyer-willing seller structures of equal powerlessness and rational acts by benevolent firms.

As someone in a wheelchair one might expect that I would be outraged by this.  I am outraged, but it has nothing to do with the dice I know people suffer from; it is because it is a deeply unjust and philosophically ignorant view.  It is pure and utter bollocks justified for the sake of a convenient mathematical model.  And that is both deeply, deeply immoral as well as far more a fundamentalist faith than the normal academic critique you expect from both the sciences and the humanities.

The long & short term selfSo let us presume that there are some problems in the Neoliberal view.  Let us presume that power does concentrate and can and does buy political parties of the right, degrades democracy where it suits (who needs elected local body councillors in Canterbury anyway) and effectively buys the policies they desire.  Let us presume that the success of that rort by the powerful, as allowed and actively encouraged under Neoliberalism, has concentrated the worldview (or rather the me-me-me-view) that short-term profit is far more fun and acceptable than worrying about future things like the life of the planet, functioning natural systems, and the future of society.

Let us presume that expedience, the abuse of power, and greed will lead to everyone losing in the long-term and fewer and fewer people ‘winning’ in the short-term – if by ‘winning’ we mean gambling on a living in meaningless luxury and dying before the consequences take hold.  Let us presume that there is patently not a meritocracy in play, somewhat the reverse if by ‘merit’ we presume some moral dimension – that is, a good person who thinks about the future of community, and the need for meaningful lives beyond their own short spell on our planet.

This is the world in which we have been forced to live for over 30 years.

Knowing that, and putting yourself in Rawls’ original position, behind that veil of ignorance, what then would you do about it?


Would you view the concentration and abuse of power as antisocial, far worse than minor theft because it has the potential to destroy our world?   Would you treat that abuse as a root cause of evil, and put in place constitutional means by which such commercial absolutism was prevented, as has been done before with various constitutional permutations from the Magna Carta?  Would you retain or discard the economic ideology of Neoliberalism that has let loose these Hyenas of Commerce upon us and those unborn?  Would you safeguard the functioning of our life-support systems as paramount, and treat them as systems, not mere stocks of ‘things’?

Would you ensure – should you be born in 150 years, brown, women and poor – that there were unwritten and written norms of justice in our society that allowed you to be the talent that you are?

What would those be?  Or do you think the market with all its power distortions and lack of concern for consequences – even to your own individual survival – will suffice?

Chris Perley

Chris Perley has a background in embedding himself in our landscapes and fields, in management, policy, consulting and research relating to land use, the environment, provincial economies and communities.  He is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability.

Rawls, J. 1971.  A Theory of Justice.  Belknap Press, NY

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