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Don't Give Up Your Day Job, Brad DeLong

Tuesday, July 17, 2007
So let's see if I can say this in a way that makes sense:

1) SPEECHWRITER Michael Gerson writes a silly post about ethics

2) PHILOSPHER Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings calls Gerson silly, and evinces irritation that non-professionals hold forth on complicated philosophical questions

3) The ECONOMIST Brad DeLong echoes this criticism

4) The ECONOMIST DeLong then explains why an op-ed by ECONOMIST Greg Mankiw (which thankfully I missed) messed up PHILOSOPHER John Rawls

5) In doing so, the ECONOMIST Brad DeLong proceeds to screw up Rawls.

Can anybody figure out why I am both amused and annoyed?

On to the substance...

Mankiw stated that:

Professor Rawls concluded that the primary goal of public policy should be to redistribute resources to help those at the very bottom of the economic ladder. If Professor Rawls were alive today, he would most likely want to raise the top income tax rate of 35 percent in order to finance a more generous safety net. And for much the same reason, he would probably raise taxes on the middle class as well...

In explaining why this was an incorrect interpretation of Rawls, DeLong states that the best description of Rawls' Difference Principle would go as follows:

A group of people are sitting around the campfire, after a hard day's worth of work and pay in which what jobs people did and how hard they worked and how they were rewarded was determined by some complicated and not very transparent process.

Looking around, the person who is worst off says: "Hey! Wait a minute! This isn't fair. Everybody else is better off than I am."

And one of the others replies: "I'm sorry. You do get less than everybody else. But we set things up in the best way we could. Given the constraints imposed by human psychology and the natural world, we couldn't have set things up in any way so that you would have been better off."

"Oh. That's OK then."

Okay, so Mankiw is wrong to stated that redistribution is the centerpiece of Rawls. But DeLong is ALSO wrong to say that Rawls doesn't care about distribution that much. I could get into how DeLong is applying the Original Position incorrectly, but that would be unnecessarily complicated. But what Rawls does say is that any distribution has to be to the advantage of the worst off. In other words, our friend who worked really hard and got screwed at the end of the day could say "Hey, I worked just as hard as the rest of you, and you've got more stuff now even though it wouldn't hurt you to share!" If this were the case, Rawls would rule that DeLong's hypothetical society is unjust.

So there. Stick to Economics, Brad!
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:58 PM
  • Ummmm... you are mostly right... Liberty is primary, but econimic well-being is a very close second for Rawls.

    What is really important, but gets missed a lot in Rawls is not only that the person who is the worst off will accept it, but WHY.

    The situation is more like this, Jim figures out that he got the short-end of a just economic distribution. Jim proposes a solution to fix that distribution that puts Mark in a worse position than Jim landed in.

    At that point, Rawls reasons that the first distribution was just because any other option would have placed another person in a worse position than Jim was willing to accept for himself. Rawls says this is best because it leads to the right kind of stability because it is possible to reason with Jim and explain to him why the distribution that shafted him was the most just overall.

    This is part of the maximin principle that says that the group that gets the least should have as much as possible and that redistribution of resources ought to happen to achieve it -- thus, the only just inequalities are ones that, if resolved, would place the lowest group in an even worse situation than before.

    By Blogger Inside the Philosophy Factory, at 6:04 PM  
  • I get what you're saying. I was just trying to simplify to the level of a blog post. Did I dumb it down too much?

    By the way, I'd wonder what you made of my arguments on the Gerson article.

    By Blogger Arbitrista, at 9:36 PM  
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