Arnold Kling  

Grouchy Book Reviews

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In general, I lean toward, "If you don't have anything nice to say, then don't say it." But several books that I was sent to review made me grouchy, because of what they did not include. Note: I could not finish any of these books, and if I could have found what I was looking for by doing more than just flip through, then I owe the authors apologies.

David Rothkopf's Power, Inc. said that since corporations have gotten bigger, government needs to get bigger. He does not explain why he thinks more government power is the solution rather than the problem with big corporations. Nor does he explain why he is marketing the book to ordinary individuals. It is clear that he thinks that the world is run by the sort of people who go to Davos, and no one else matters. It is not clear why he bothers trying to converse outside of that crowd. The book carries a laudatory blurb from Larry Summers, who says that "Power and money make the world go round."

Summers plays a starring role in Noam Scheiber's Escape Artists, which tries to solve the mystery of why the Obama Administration did not enact a larger stimulus. Scheiber devotes several pages to giving us psychoanalysis of Summers from his high school chums, but no pages to describing how the stimulus dollars worked their way into the economy. I looked at the index for an entry for John Taylor, whose 2010 paper with John Cogan addresses that issue, but to no avail. The only reference to Taylor implies that Taylor in 2008 favored a trillion dollar stimulus. (Is that even true?)

I would have figured that it would be pretty hard to write a book about meetings to discuss economic policy that could hold a reader's interest. This book confirms those priors. [Update: David Warsh seemed to enjoy the book, but his tastes are unusual.]

When it comes to blurbs for unreadable books, you can't beat the ones on John Tomasi's Free Market Fairness, due out in April, now available. Tyler Cowen leads the parade of endorsers, which includes a veritable who's who of libertarian-leaning scholars.

I had two problems with the book. A minor one is that Tomasi refers to John Rawls early and often. As far as I am concerned, Rawls is the Regis Philbin of political philosophy. He is famous for being famous. Yes, there is substance in Rawls, but it is pedestrian substance. It struck me as pedestrian when it came out (to more fanfare than any other academic work in my lifetime), and it still strikes me that way. To say that my view of Rawls is not widely shared is an understatement, which is why I regard this quibble with Tomasi as minor.

The major problem I have with Tomasi is that if you want to lay some political philosophy on me, you have to draw a clear distinction between "society" and "the state." (Rawls fails to do this, also.) Consider:

a) I want to live in a society were people donate generously to charities that are supposed to help the disadvantaged.

b) I want to live in a state that taxes people heavily to support programs that are supposed to help the disadvantaged.

I see those as separate statements. You are welcome to argue that (a) is impossible and (b) is the only realistic way to live in a compassionate society. But if you don't even bother to make the distinction in order to make the argument, and instead you conflate society with the state, you have a non-starter as far as I'm concerned.


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COMMENTS (12 to date)
ThomasL writes:

I think your view of Rawls is often shared by people more interested in philosophy than politics.

That is, Rawls is easily used by someone that must find a philosophical gravitas to sell some political program--undoubtedly some program they had in mind before reading Rawls. I am not sure how many people read Rawls simply to find truth.

I think in that sphere, Rawls is not nearly as interesting a moral philosopher as Kant or Aquinas.

If restricted to moderns, contra Rawls, I'd also set Ronald Dworkin, who has a much more interesting philosophy of justice than Rawls (though I don't personally agree with it) and Alasdair MacIntyre, who starts with natural law and by some admixture of a social gospel ends by promoting Marxism. Again, I don't agree with the conclusions he draws, but MacIntyre is a respectable thinker.

I'm a little hesitant, because I am not as familiar with his work (I am working on it, Modernity Without Restraint is on my nightstand), but Eric Voegelin is something of an antidote to the the Rawls and the Dworkins that dream of arranging perfect justice in this world.

Steve Reilly writes:

I think he's wrong about Taylor. Here's an op-ed he wrote in Nov '08: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122757149157954723.html

which includes lines like "government spending does not address the causes of the weak economy, which has been pulled down by a housing slump, a financial crisis and a bout of high energy prices, and where expectations of future income and employment growth are low."

Foobarista writes:

Rawls is to philosophy what Keynes is to economics: a famous academic who is interpreted as saying essentially "government is good, big government is better". Naturally, they're popular with people who advocate government as the solution to all that ails man and beast.

Jack writes:

I believe John Harsanyi showed that John Rawls' big claim to fame was nothing more than a pathological, special case of expected utility theory, that should not be of interest to anyone thinking about real issues. E.g., it implies infinite risk aversion, which clearly does not describe most people.

In general it appears those books "assume the solution". If that's true, I strongly support your grumpiness.

JohnTomasi writes:

Hi Arnold, thanks for mentioning my new book, Free Market Fairness,which came out this week. For those who have not seen it, I would add that my book is inspired by Hayek at least as much, or more, than by Rawls, and the lengthy index entries for "economic liberties" and "spontaneous order" makes clear why.

In Volume 2 of Law, Legislation and Liberty, "The Mirage of Social Justice, Hayek at three places affirms the idea of ("Rawlsian") social justice, so long at economic liberties are protected, the legislative powers of government are strictly limited, and the resulting social order remains a "cosmos"---Hayek's term for the free society. In Free Market Fairness, I try to make sense of and to defend that Hayekian idea.

Of course, just as some people don't think Rawls's ideas are worth discussion, other people feel the same about Hayek's. I disagree with both groups.

[link fixed--Econlib Ed.]

Part of what John's book is saying is that nearly everyone who is a free marketeer thinks capitalism meets Rawls's criterion of distributive justice.

The criterion is: Does a set of institutions serve the interests of the poorest members of society? (I'm not using the technical language and I'm making Rawls sound more utilitarian than he is.)

How many advocates of, say, laissez faire think laissez faire would *hurt* the poor? Only the ones who think laissez faire is good even though it would hurt the poor are *not* Rawlsians, loosely speaking.

So what?

Rawls was the greatest political philosopher of the twentieth century because his heuristic, the "veil of ignorance," expresses the arbitrariness of advantages/disadvantages of birth or luck. A deliberator behind that veil, who doesn't know if he will be born rich or poor, smart or dumb, hard working or lazy, will want to ensure that, no matter what, he doesn't starve or live in misery.

Hence Rawls's criterion of distributive justice.

The veil, as well as the criterion, are things libertarians would do well to incorporate, so they could shed the absurd notion that if you're born rich you're "entitled" to be rich, and that if you're born poor you're somehow at fault for it.

Urstoff writes:

Rawls probably did more to give the communitarians a giant target at which to aim than to advance contractarianism.

Joe Cushing writes:

Grouchy reviews are good. There are way more books out there than I could ever read. If every review was glowing, how would I pick among them?

As corporations get bigger, I think you want government to get smaller. Big corporations can get big handouts from big governments. They can also use government to tilt the table in their favor. The more complicated the rules are, the less likely a small competitor will gain a toehold in the market. Sometimes big government goes as far as to grant a monopoly to a business.

ThomasL writes:

@Jeffrey Friedman

I'd recommend Mark Pennington's book Robust Political Economy* for a nice 'fisking' of Rawls central ideas from a libertarian perspective.

The veil of ignorance is fine enough in some ways as a thought experiment--much in the vein of Smith's impartial spectator--but the conclusions that Rawls says would result from decision making from behind the veil are often bare assertions. Why would be people decide that the proper function would be to maximize the condition of the least well off? Why not decide to maximize the overall prosperity of society? What if maximizing the condition of the poor implies lowering the mean condition, perhaps drastically? Rawls seems to suggest that being poor is the worst imaginable fate and, behind the veil, people would choose to avoid it at any cost to society overall. Rawls also poorly separates between poverty as the result of luck and the result of choice. The veil then has two characteristics (a) the one everyone talks about, ignorance of one's own position in society and (b) immediacy, everyone beyond the veil has a present condition, but no history, no path leading up to the present condition. Not only am I ignorant of my status, I am perfectly ignorant of the circumstances which brought everyone to their present status (this is where Rawls takes a hard turn away from the impartial spectator, who is informed of all relevant details). But that erases the concept of desert entirely, which is at odds with the very concept of anything called "justice."

One of the strongest reasons people feel inclined to improve the condition of those with bad luck is because they plainly don't deserve it. Rawls actually undercuts that by implicitly suggesting there is no such thing as 'deserve' (and consequently 'don't deserve') at all.


*There is a also a worthwhile video around of Pennington talking about the book, though I can't remember if he mentions Rawls.

Ken writes:
The veil, as well as the criterion, are things libertarians would do well to incorporate, so they could shed the absurd notion that if you're born rich you're "entitled" to be rich, and that if you're born poor you're somehow at fault for it.

I would call that a canard based on a sloppy choice of words, but libertarians can use language as sloppily as anyone else, so it may well be true of some. :-)

It is not, of course, the fault of the poor that they are born poor (my own family background is working class; we were never desperately poor, but looking back at the '70s it may occasionally have been a nearer thing than I realized at the time). However, the primary responsibility for improving their condition lies with poor individuals (as it does for any individual), as the ones best qualified to determine their own interests and act appropriately. "Responsibility" is conflated with "fault," I think.

As to being born rich, one has no more say in the matter than one has in having superlative facial bone structure, perfect pitch, the ability to run 40 yards in 4.2 seconds, or being 6'7" and having excellent manual dexterity and balance. Everyone nods sagely at the lessons of "Harrison Bergeron," but the lessons are far more generalizable than is commonly realized.

Rawls fails for evolutionary reasons. All life on Earth is related. Carrots are distant cousins. Evolution requires difference. "Equality" is an illusion.

Morality evolves. The ghosts behind Rawls' veil of ignorance either have evolved motivations and (limited) knowledge of some worldly facts or they have no basis on which to construct their ideal state. Rawls imagins that these are normal human ghosts. What if they are sociopathic human ghosts, or tiger ghosts, or herbivore ghosts who remember tigers, or ghosts of grasses which remember herbivores?

Cao Qin writes:

Rawlsian philosophy only makes sense to people who are intelligent enough and who have the petience to actually read his work (instead of picking up some distorted descriptions about him).

I don't have time to rebut all the comments against him above, so I'' just mention one example.

In February 19, 2012 4:01 PM, Jack writes:

"John Harsanyi showed that John Rawls' big claim to fame was nothing more than a pathological, special case of expected utility theory, that should not be of interest to anyone thinking about real issues. E.g., it implies infinite risk aversion, which clearly does not describe most people."

Well dear Jack, have you ever read Rawls's reply to Harsanyi? Rawls clearly argues that the difference principle only applies to the basic structure, not every tiny decision in our life. To attack Rawls in Harsanyi's way is like to attack rule utilitarianism by saying that people don't actually calculate the consequences of most of their actions.

So for all those who think Rawls is not as important as he is said to be, my suggestion is this: read him.

“The smarter you get, the smarter it gets.” (Hilary Putnam on A Theory of Justice)

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