Rawls for Reactionaries

This is long but good. You should read it if you are interested in academic political philosophy and/or the proper nature of political consent and/or new and bizarre directions in the reaction. You should not read it if you think it’s pointless to deconstruct – or even understand – liberalism, and/or if you are kinda dull. Good luck.

I was assigned some Moldbug on a second date with a stranger from the internet (lulz) but I honestly haven’t made it through much yet (mea culpa). However, in the middle of doing some late-night browsing recently, I came across his 2007 treatment of Rawls, the cryptocalvin (<– totally viable candidate for naming my firstborn son, btw). As Moldbug rightly notes, Rawls has already been taken down pretty thoroughly and, I think, at least somewhat enduringly by none other than Robert Nozick in Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Incidentally, I have it on good credit that Bob Nozick used to attend and lecture at libertarian summer camps, where he did lines of coke and hooked up with the college- and grad school-aged students. Much to my chagrin, I missed that era of the Liberty Movement (gag).

Anyways, thinkers like to tread our own, ostensibly novel intellectual paths even if the existing ones are pretty well-worn… maybe it’s hubris, in which case I have plenty. Moldbug has taken the time to put his stamp on the argument against Rawlsianism, but it’s unfortunately pretty off-base. If you just want to critique liberalism in general, cool – it assumes many forms and expressions, and whichever you take as an example, that’s fine. But if you want to critique Rawls, per se, then you must first represent Rawls accurately. Anything less discredits an already marginal body of thought, and should be intellectually embarrassing. No need to become a Rawls scholar – that would raise the barriers to entry to the discussion unacceptably high – but you should have a good command of the fundamentals at least.

Rawls is still wrong, but Moldbug strawmans the hell out of him here. In my experience, and admittedly, it’s a common misinterpretation of the veil of ignorance. So it’s important that we identify the misinterpretation for what it is, correct it, and then take down – maybe even repurposing – Rawls properly. Here goes. If I may quote from the scripture Moldbug at some length:

So let’s take a closer look at Rawls’ idea, the famous veil of ignorance. But let’s try it out in the context where it makes the most sense – the kingdom of God on earth.

Suppose God did, in fact, exist. Suppose he was omnipotent, omniscient, and infinitely benevolent, employing an arbitrary number of angels to achieve his perfect wishes. If you are such a hardcore atheist that you can’t imagine this at all, imagine God as a space alien with access to infinite alien technology.

Said alien is newly arrived in the Solar System and wishes to establish his kingdom on Earth, perhaps on account of its water-based ecosphere, mild climate and excellent chocolate. Because he is, in fact, God, implementation details are not a concern. And because he is infinitely benevolent, he wants the best for everyone. Therefore he consults John Rawls.

Rawls tells him that an ideal society will be the one chosen by arbitrary humans who are unaware of the position they are to occupy in that society. So, for example, a Rawlsian might ask: who should be paid more, a NASCAR driver or a truck driver? The observer behind the veil of ignorance is likely to say the truck driver should be paid more, because driving in the Daytona 500 is a hell of a lot of fun and hauling a load of sofas from Chicago to Vegas is no fun at all. Unless the truck driver is paid more to compensate for this inequality, he or she is relatively disadvantaged, an outcome the observer (who can have no reason not to fear assignment to this role) will seek to avoid.

There’s an almost medieval flavor to this exercise, and it can lead to an infinite amount of intellectual entertainment. Of course, not even John Rawls can derive “ought” from “is,” and there is no rational reason to prefer his definition of an ideal society to anyone else’s. Ethics are fundamentally aesthetic. But there is a clarity and prettiness to the Rawlsian theory of righteousness that makes it aesthetically quite attractive, and I certainly cannot imagine any solution to the same problem that I’d find more satisfying.

The difficulty, of course, is in the problem. What Rawls has performed is a beautiful feat of misdirection. His imaginary problem is almost perfectly designed to misdirect the thinking man’s attention away from the real problem.

In the kingdom of God on earth, God finds it very easy to make sure NASCAR drivers are paid less than truck drivers. No one can disobey God. He assigns us to our roles, he directs our every movement. If God tells you to turn left at the next light, you don’t hang a right.

The question is: what relevance does this have for the actual problem of government? The answer is: none. As Madison put it, if men were angels, we would need no government at all. In Rawls’ kingdom, we are not angels, but we are governed by angels. The great engineering problem of designing a system in which fallible humans can govern each other and get along simply does not exist in Rawls’ philosophy.

Of course Rawls does not actually say this. He just encourages it. By setting up an ideal of righteousness that only divine rule can achieve, Rawls supplies the perfect distraction to help his readers forget that in reality, men are governed only by men, and history knows only two kinds of government: those based on law, and those based on violence.

For example, in the NASCAR-teamster example, what sort of law would ensure a Rawlsian result? Do we have wage and price controls, Nixon style? The odor of medieval Christianity is unmistakable. You can almost taste the sumptuary laws.

Or would there even be laws? In keeping with its derogation of mere formalist justice, Rawls’ philosophy is profoundly antilegal. The veil-of-ignorance problem does not even pretend to any objective solution which can be reliably agreed by multiple disputing parties.

If we were ruled by the Rawlsian god, who solves the veil-of-ignorance problem himself and imposes the answer by sheer angelic force, that’d be just lovely. But in the kingdom of men, when different men have different definitions of “justice,” they have a well-known tendency to fight over the result. Cosmic righteousness and consistent, objective law are not just different things. They are actively opposed. Arbitrary rules whose derivation is entirely historical, but whose result is absolutely clear – such as property titles – are often the only way to define a consensus that everyone can agree on peacefully.

In other words, Rawlsianism without the Rawlsian god is an almost perfect recipe for friction. Small wonder that in the 20th century, almost 100 million people were murdered in various attempts to construct egalitarian utopias. You can’t fault Edward Bellamy for not knowing better, but you can fault Rawls – and I do.

The design of legal systems is an engineering problem. When we understate this problem, when we replace it with a religious or quasi-religious substitute, or when we seek levels of perfection that are only achievable through the intervention of benevolent spirits, we invite engineering disaster. Rawls himself was lucky enough to live his whole life in a country governed, if imperfectly, by something that still resembled the rule of law, in which “justice” still meant justice and not heavenly righteousness. But not all have been so fortunate.

It’s true that legal systems design is an engineering problem, moreover Rawls realizes this – that’s why he situates the original position, as governed by the veil of ignorance, in a chronological series of steps that government formation would ideally follow. The veil of ignorance just refers to the idea that we should understand political legitimacy as having been hypothetically consented to by fictional contractors who are stripped of information about their particular stations in life. It is to prioritize hypothetical consent over actual consent, because actual political deliberators’ minds are clouded by self-interest and the particularities of their experience, so they either generate questionable political conclusions (due to disparities in power, etc) or fail to generate political agreement at all.

According to Rawls, the veil is to be assumed at the first stages of government, in thinking about the “basic structures of society” that make cooperative/social/non-state-of-nature life possible in the first place. Every well-ordered society will have some set of laws, markets, political institutions, family practices, etc. These elements of the basic structure have profound implications for citizens, greatly determining how benefits and burdens of social life are shared, and must therefore be chosen in such a way that each citizen could hypothetically endorse the choice. Hence, the veil.

The difference between a proper interpretation of Rawls’s veil of ignorance and Moldbug’s is analogous to the difference between rule utilitarianism and act utilitarianism. Rule utilitarianism would have us act in accordance with the set of rules or moral principles that conduce to the greatest number of hedons experienced in the aggregate and considered impartially. In a not dissimilar vein, Rawls says that we have to consider the outcomes of different possible basic structures of society, and their tendencies to systematically advantage or disadvantage persons over time.

On the other hand, Moldbug speaks as though the veil of ignorance provides a kind of decision procedure, which god or the keepers of state power could hypothetically use at any time to decide how to arrange people and institutions and resources so as to comport with the difference principle. This is to view society from the perspective of judging discrete acts for their socio-political value and allowing or forbidding them on that basis, much in the same way as act utilitarianism requires assessing individual acts (or omissions) for their propensity to create net hedons (or dolors).

But hey, even Rawls isn’t quite that unrealistic – it’s obvious that there would be huge knowledge problems and social disrupt inherent to such a government. Indeed, the principles of justice haven’t even been selected by the hypothetical contractors yet! — so there does not yet even exist any difference principle to apply from behind the veil. From and following the veil-bound original position, Rawls argues that 2 principles of justice emerge. You have probably heard of these – the liberty principle and the infamous difference principle (the latter has two parts, pertaining to equality of opportunity and a maximin principle regarding the well-being of the least well-off). These are to govern the basic structure of society as it is constructed by real-world actors, from whom the veil has been theoretically lifted. Contra Moldbug, it’s just not true that “So, for example, a Rawlsian might ask: who should be paid more, a NASCAR driver or a truck driver?” Rather the Rawlsian would inquire about which forms of labor exchange on the market, combined with which political institutions (including the safety net), make it such that both drivers have a fair and maxi-min-imized chance of securing the primary goods of life – with each enjoying as many liberties to contract his labor on mutually agreeable terms as is consistent with this.

Importantly, notice that the principles of justice are a substantive, non-trivial outcome of the veil-bound original position. Even if you find the concept of the veil morally/politically compelling, you can at the same time believe that Rawls was wrong about the two particular resulting principles of justice offered. What reason do we have to believe that the hypothetical contractors would want equal liberties and opportunities, with a priority for maximizing the well-being (mostly material) of the least well-off? Rawls said so? Mhmm.

Alternatively, Rawls critics can just argue that the two principles of justice have been applied incorrectly – e.g., that things like a robust safety net for the least-well off actually don’t maximize their well-being. After all, the primary goods – “things which a rational man wants whatever else he wants” – consist in more than just material goods; the primary goods presumably include things like some appropriate degree of autonomy, self-respect, familiar relations, and so on. Already, plenty of libertarians and conservative make compelling arguments that robust safety nets may give to the poor material goods with one hand, while they snatch away other non-pecuniary psychological primary goods with the other.

N.B. that libertarian commenters on Rawls have adopted both approaches. The self-ownership/non-aggression principle crew might accept the setup of the original position, complete with veil of ignorance, but maintain that only the liberty principle follows. That is, these libertarians believe that hypothetical contractors would agree only to the kind of government that preserves the largest sphere of liberties for each individual that is compatible with each other individual enjoying the same set of liberties. This government would not adopt the goal of equalizing opportunity or of allowing only those inequalities which are to the advantage of the least-well off, perhaps because the hypothetical contractors are in fact more liberty-loving or less risk-averse that those which Rawls conjured.

Rawlsekians – who live at the intersection of Rawls and Hayek – take the other approach in their criticism. To a Rawlsekian, Rawls’s substantive findings regarding the original position as governed by the veil are basically fine, but he misapplies them in assuming that something approaching social democracy follows. Given what we know about fairly free markets and their ability to produce material prosperity, the empirical fact of the matter is that smaller and less intrusive governments just are part of the basic structure of society which conduces to the advantage of the least well-off. In this case, we can expect huge inequalities in income and wealth, but they are indeed justified by the maximin requirement because the worst-off (allegedly) still are dealt more distributionally than under tax-and-transfer schemes, with their concomitant disincentives to earn and deadweight loss.

Yet, upon learning about Rawls’s take on the original position, most conservatives and libertarians are inclined to say that the veil of ignorance, as assumed in the original position, is too abstract. That it doesn’t take seriously the messy realities of human life, psychology, incentives, behavioral econ, blah blah blah. At this point, though, having given it some additional thought, I’m willing to charge high liberalism with not being abstract enough. The hypothetical contractors in the original position are assumed by Rawls to possess the moral powers of justice and rationality, and to behave in accordance with thick values and plans for their lives (i.e., they are reflective and relatively low time preferenced). But notice that the moral motivation for assuming the veil of ignorance in the first place was to clear our intuitions about how to order society without reflecting bias on account of the accidents of our births. Important, n.b.: whether or not you are rational, justice-oriented, and low time-preferenced is also to some significant extent an accident of birth. ABSTRACT IT OUT. The hypothetical contractors under a properly robust veil of ignorance are disembodied cogitators who know that many amongst them will, in real life, become naturally not particularly rational, not particularly pro-social, not particularly low-time preferenced, not particularly disciplined, etc etc.

Facing this fact, what should our hypothetical contractors do? Rawls assumes ex ante that the outcome is some form of deliberative democracy, but I don’t know why he should have to do that: if you take the position and resulting moral authority of the hypothetical contractors seriously enough to conjure them up in the first place, then whatever foundational political principles they select will be imbued by extension with moral authority. Maybe the contractors will realize that, given how stupid and badly behaved many of them will be, they don’t want everyone voting.

None of this to say that Moldbug is wrong about Rawlsian liberal progressivism constituting a religion or quasi-religion. But I regret that people who aren’t super liberal are typically so dead set on making blithe fun of the veil of ignorance, without even understanding it. It is not at all politically irrelevant that many features of our persons and our lives are determined by accidents of birth – it’s just not relevant precisely in the way that Rawls supposes.

So here’s what I have to say about Rawls for Reactionaries: you just don’t have to abandon a morally important perspective – impartiality, one form of which is embodied in the veil – in order to reject Rawlsianism. We can co-opt this, an extremely compelling feature of the Rawlsian spirit, by out-theorizing the theorizers.  Those who are even capable of thinking from a perspective of impartiality – and it’s not everyone – have a responsibility to do so, and wisely. The veil is a shape-shifting piece of ideology: the accuracy of what you get out depends on the accuracy of what you put in. Rawlsians get liberalism, Rawlsekians get minimal-state libertarianism, and Rawlsactionaries offer some kind of hypothetically agreeable conservatism as an antidote to the socio-political problems of modernity. I’m not sure exactly what form the neoreaction should take, but we can confidently assume that that antidote will meet the legitimate moral demands of a properly conceived original position, hypothetically populated by properly abstracted contractors.

Do NOT roll over and allow progressives to claim a monopoly on justifiable forms of moral reasoning. At bottom, the veil of ignorance cannot be about playing god or overutopia-izing. Rightly understood, it’s about taking fairness seriously, within the bounds of human nature as we know them, and the quite limited possibilities of effective top-down design. Rawls starts to do that – for instance he leaves families basically untouched, correctly recognizing that functional families add huge value to people’s lives and that their basic form is not up for grabs, society design-wise. But on other fronts, Rawls fucked up and went AWOL from reality, taking it for granted out of the gate that there will be great convergence between deeply democratic forms of government and those which foster acquisition of the primary goods of life, and conflating the hypothetical moral equality of citizens with their real-world needs, capabilities, and limitations.

So in short, I disagree with Moldbug that “[Rawls’s] imaginary problem is almost perfectly designed to misdirect the thinking man’s attention away from the real problem.” Indeed, reactionaries should really dig Rawls’ prioritization of hypothetical political consent over actual political consent, as the latter is almost always absent or meaningfully coerced, or provided by largely stupid and misinformed people in an irresponsible way. Why downplay the importance of political consent – a tough sell, philosophically and practically – when you can instead insist that your model has gotten it right?

Reactionaries seem to see themselves as better at recognizing reality and just as smart, if not smarter, than the liberals. So it is time to directly attack the chief priest of high liberal theory, fairly and accurately. I’m not just doing intellectual tricks here, in some bid for attention or premature status in the community. Rather, I see the glimmers of political impartiality in the reaction already, and it fascinates me. After all, impartiality need not consist in a recommendation to treat all citizens alike; rather it is to take each person’s interests equally as seriously.

For instance, I’ve heard reactionaries make the claim that more hierarchical societies are justified and preferred because they benefit even those who would occupy the lower classes, as compared to the status of the lower classes now – hello, Rawlsian difference principle. Reactionaries also deny that they think they’ll individually stand to benefit in their proposed political order – i.e., each reactionary doesn’t just mistakenly believe that *he’ll* be king. Au contraire, reactionaries seem to be doing fairly well in life and will be able to continue enjoying the decline, even as they expect many of their fellow citizens to suffer precipitous material, social, and cultural decline imminently. Still caring what becomes of society – and the lower classes – evidences a concern for impartiality.

Don’t believe me? Quick check for the veil of ignorance’s compatibility vis-à-vis these 5 features of reactionary thought:

  1. Right is right, left is wrong: It is difficult to mentally shake these terms’ colloquial connotations. But, to the extent that this just refers to order vs. disorder, no problem. There exists no prima facie reason to suppose that the hypothetical contractors behind the veil wouldn’t prefer a well-ordered society (that met other moral criteria as well), in which power was limited and well-distributed (not equally distributed – well-distributed).
  2. Hierarchy is basically a good idea: Again, no prima facie reason why this couldn’t be agreed to by the veil’s contractors – especially if it’s true that life goes better in a variety of ways even for the least well-off when their places in society are well-defined, if not prestigious.
  3. Traditional sex roles are basically a good idea: Rawls himself seems agnostic on this, and indeed leaves the family more or less untouched as a feature of the basic structure of society. Other philosophers have attempted to extend liberal conceptions of justice to relations within the family, but these attempts are essentially unsuccessful or at least devastatingly short-sighted. So sure.
  4. Libertarianism is retarded: Oh look, basic reactionary beliefs are still comporting with the veil-bound government-assessing perspective, that’s neat. Unless contractors are assumed to be very risk-tolerant (which why would you assume that? there are important individual and gender differences in this regard), they will not agree to a world in which the worst lots to draw in life are extremely bad. Libertarians exaggerate the extent to which private charity and mutual aid would improve the lives of the least well-off, especially in a heterogenous society, and anyways decent lives are supposed to be ensured for all as a matter of justice, not as charity.
  5.  Democracy is irredeemably flawed and we need to do away with it: Well, this would seem to be the point where Rawlsactionary thought fails. However, listen closely – I’ve gestured towards this previously but here’s the kicker: Rawls basically assumes democracy, because he can given his audience, but if democracy is really so great for interrelated moral and empirical reasons, then the hypothetical contractors will get it out of the veil — there is no reason to import it in. So premise 5 may very well be a substantive outcome of the bringing to bear a reactionary perspective on the veil, if not a theoretical inevitability. More work is required to suss this out.

The fact that veil-motivated reasoning could be consistent with reactionary thought doesn’t obviate the need for specific and extended arguments in this capacity, but it’s an intriguing observation nonetheless. I conclude: it is not the framework of Rawlsianism which sucks, it is its question-begging liberal substance. Lift the bullshit assumptions that (1) the outcome of such a government-birthing process will be thoroughly democratic, and (2) that actual citizens – not just hypothetical citizens – possess the two moral powers of justice and rationality, and you’ve got yourself a Rawlsaction.


5 thoughts on “Rawls for Reactionaries

  1. I hesitate to call myself a Moldbug expert, but I have read his blog since 2007. I’ve read every post there, and the key series (Dawkins, OL and Gentle Introduction) multiple times, so I believe I am qualified enough to comment.

    First, it is generally a bad idea to take Moldbug too literally. He is not aiming for coherence and he is not trying to describe every nuance of his targets. He is a polemicist, and the target is Progressivism.

    Moldbug is kind of like Socrates. He has essentially started the neoreactionary movement, but that only happened after he has stopped actively posting. No one really buys into Plato’s Theory of Forms, and as far as I can tell no one in NR actually buys into neocameralism with cryptographic weapon locks as an ideal governement.

    Moldbug should be read to make you think about all those things you previously took for granted. He lays waste to the foundations of the modern theory of government, but does not have any real answers about what to replace it with or how to go about doing so. Moldbug may have inspired NR, but his word is not Gospel. It does not sustain exegetical analysis.

    Second, why would neareactionaries want to borrow from a liberal theorist? The whole point is not to buy into the same narrative, but rather to use older sources to reconstruct and potentially update older views. Just because you can recast some elements of neoreactionary thought through a Rawlsian filter does not mean you should. Can you explain how using hypothetical consent would actually be useful?

    Finally, people who are unequal should be treated unequally. The hypothetical political consent of a particular group should be just as irrelevant as their actual consent. I agree that is a tough sell, but it does not seem to make it much more palatable to tell someone they would theoretically consent.

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