A Rawlsian View of Inequality in Contemporary U.S. Politics

David Lewis Shaefer, "Justice and Inequality," Wall Street Journal, July 23, 2007.


In other words, the absolute economic well-being of most Americans matters less than their relative position. Legitimizing this spirit of envy is the work of philosophers unknown to the vast majority of Americans. One of the most influential was John Rawls, longtime professor of philosophy at Harvard, who died almost five years ago. In his most widely read book, “A Theory of Justice” (1971), Rawls professed to summarize the requirements of institutional justice in two principles. The first principle mandated that the “equal basic liberties” of all citizens be maximized. The second (the “difference principle”) ordained that inequalities in social and economic goods were allowable only to the extent that they improved the condition of the “least advantaged” members of society. Conferring the National Humanities Medal on Rawls in 1999, then-President Bill Clinton applauded the professor’s having “placed our rights to liberty and justice upon a strong and brilliant new foundation of reason,” thereby helping “a whole generation of learned Americans revive their faith in democracy itself.”

Wall Street Journal