Rawls on Wall St.

Steven Mazie, "Rawls on Wall St." New York Times, October 11, 2011.

Whether it fizzles with the first snowfall or develops into a true counterweight to the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street will go down as the first protest movement in recent memory to shine a critical light on the staggering levels of economic inequality in the United States.

But to move forward and make a difference, Occupy Wall Street needs specific goals backed by a more coherent, more inspiring vision for American democracy.  To their credit,protestors have recently begun debating which specific demands the movement should make, but their conversations appear to be unguided by any deeper wisdom.  A perfect intellectual touchstone would be the work of John Rawls, the American political philosopher who was one of the 20thcentury’s most influential theorists of equality. Rawls named his theory “justice as fairness,” and emphasized in his later writings that its premises are rooted in the history and aspirations of American constitutionalism.  So it’s a home-grown theory that is ripe for the picking. Despite providing a remarkable venue for what Al Gore called a“primal scream of democracy,” Occupy Wall Street is leveraged too heavily on the rhetoric of rage rather than reciprocity. Rawls would argue that Occupy is fully justified in its criticism of the political and economic structures that propagate massive concentrations of wealth; he saw the “basic structure” of society as the “primary subject of justice.” But Rawls would lament the tendency of the “99 percent” to misdirect their energies into hatred of individuals in the 1 percent. He would have them save their hostility for the policies and institutions that have permitted only the wealthiest to enjoy significant gains from the past two decades of economic growth.

Rawls’s boldest claim — that inequality in society is only justified if its least well-off members fare better than they would under any other scheme — could provide a lodestar for the protests. Rawls was no Marxist: this “difference principle” acknowledges that a productive, free society will be home to at least some degree of inequality. But the principle insists that if the rich get richer while wages and social capital of the poor and middle class are stagnant or falling, there is something seriously wrong.

This idea is built on the premise that in a just society, citizens should be understood as free and equal participants in a system of social cooperation. Some individuals may be more motivated and harder working, and thus can legitimately expect greater rewards for their efforts. But everyone deserves the same bundle of individual rights and liberties, and everyone is entitled to “fair equality of opportunity,” including access to a decent education and a genuine chance of success in pursuing one’s life plans.

Inequality becomes injustice when the cooperative nature of society breaks down and a significant segment of the population finds itself unable to thrive, despite its best efforts. Rawls does not prescribe particular policies to heal the divide, but structural changes in campaign financing, the banking system and the tax code are natural places to begin the discussion. Whatever platform Occupy Wall Street adopts, Rawlsian principles might help clarify the values of the movement and navigate it away from divisive or intellectually bankrupt rhetoric.

Some may question the strategy of concentrating on the plight of the “least advantaged.” No political movement can get off the ground, they will rightly observe, if individuals under the poverty line are its exclusive concern. Though the recent economic downturn has swelled the ranks of these least-fortunate Americans, the proportion is still only 1 in 6, and they neither turn out at the polls in great numbers nor contribute cash to political campaigns.

Yes, merely railing against poverty cannot be Occupy Wall Street’s sole focus.  But it does violence to the special problems facing the truly poor to lump everyone in the bottom 99 percent together as if families on food stamps are really on a par with those making $100,000 or more a year. It’s worth distinguishing between the various strata of the 99 percent while highlighting something all layers have in common: a basic structure of society that is geared to advance the interests of only the very wealthiest Americans.

So perhaps Occupy should apply Rawls’s more inclusive formulation of the difference principle, which holds that “inequality is only allowed if there is reason to believe that the institution with the inequality, or permitting it, will work out for the advantage of every person engaged in it.”

Is all this too rarefied for a popular protest movement? The quote from the last paragraph does not fit on a handwritten sign, let alone a bumper sticker.  It certainly lacks the pith of one sign I saw in Zuccotti Park on Columbus Day: “Eat the Rich!!!”

But Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged,” the libertarian novel beloved by the Tea Party, helps to fuel a social movement despite running over 1100 turgid pages. Occupy protestors could find inspiration by reading  “A Theory of Justice” and Rawls’s other books in study circles from Zuccotti Park to Washington, D.C., to Des Moines. They’ll find a trove of ideas to enrich their movement, from Rawls’s “original position” (a heuristic for developing a society’s principles of justice in a context of impartiality), to his view of “public reason” (a mode of debating divisive issues), to his “overlapping consensus” (a vision of groups with incompatible beliefs settling on basic terms of political justice) to his distinction between “the rational” and “the reasonable,” where the latter includes putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and not merely advocating for your narrow self-interest.

Elizabeth Warren is already sounding some Rawls-style principles in her bid for the Massachusetts U.S. Senate seat currently held by Scott Brown. Recently she portrayed American democracy as a cooperative enterprise in which no tycoon can claim sole responsibility for his fortune, given the public goods necessary for any company to succeed. The factory owner should “keep a big hunk” of the profit but “part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

This sentiment could be ripped from the pages of a streetwise edition of  “A Theory of Justice.”  If Occupy Wall Street is to remedy the social justice crisis in the United States, it should consider drafting — and rallying behind — just such a manifesto.

Steven V. Mazie teaches at Bard College and is associate professor of political studies at Bard High School Early College in Manhattan. His book, “Israel’s Higher Law: Religion and Liberal Democracy in the Jewish State,” was published in 2006. His article, “Up from Colorblindness: Race, Equality and the Lessons of Ricci v. DeStefano,” will be published by the Law Journal for Social Justice later this month.

New York Times