Talk on Reciprocity in A Theory of Justice

Last year at about this time I gave a presentation on reciprocity to a conference at the University of Virginia’s School of Law on the 50th anniversary of Rawls’s A Theory of Justice. I’ve just found that recordings of all the talks are available online. My session is here (after the intro from Blain Neufeld):

The talk was called “Conditional vs. Unconditional in Justice as Fairness” and was based on a revised version of a paper I presented to the earlier conference “Héritage et usages de Rawls: Théorie de la justice 50 ans après“.

Full details of the UVA conference plus links to other sessions here:

The Difference Principle, Capitalism and “Property-Owning Democracy”

I recently gave a talk to the online seminar “The predistributive politics of a property-owning democracy” (PREPOD), based on my 2018 paper “The Difference Principle, Capitalism, and Property-Owning Democracy” in the journal Moral Philosophy and Politics. The talk provides the context for the paper and explains its main idea, with some new visuals and a few new details. Thanks very much to Catarina Neves for the invitation, and to everyone who attended for the questions and comments I got. A video of the presentation and subsequent discussion is available online. The paper is available on my departmental webpage.

The paper addresses the longstanding question of how right-wing or left-wing is Rawls’s theory of "justice as fairness", focusing on the "difference principle," which is roughly the idea that inequalities (i.e. differences) between social positions must raise the lowest position. Rawls himself called this principle "strongly egalitarian" (at least one version of it; §13 of A Theory of Justice, p.65 in Revised edition), and he argued that it would lead to either "liberal socialism" or "property-owning democracy" but not "welfare-state capitalism".

Definitions (which ought to be in a footnote below but WordPress’s Markdown is not working as it should):

  • Welfare-state capitalism = private property and free markets with a minimal safety net.
  • Liberal socialism = common ownership of the means of production, but using the market for the sake of economic efficiency.
  • Property-owning democracy = private ownership of the means of production + traditional welfare and social insurance policies + government uses inheritance taxes and subsidies for education and training to make sure that financial and human capital is widely distributed, instead of being concentrated in the hands of a few. The result is meant to be that pre-tax incomes will be more equal, before government gets involved in redistribution (hence the term "predistribution").

However, socialists from the left and classical liberals from the right have argued that the difference principle really does support welfare-state capitalism, with the emphasis on "capitalism." When taken in isolation from the prior requirement of equal opportunity (for having a political say, and for social advancement), the difference principle does justify inequality, even if this inequality has to be justifiable to the worst off. Hayek once said the differences between himself and Rawls were more verbal than substantial, and he did think that societies based on private property and free markets generated prosperity that raised up the worst off, over time. Writing from the vantage point of the early 1970s in The Mirage of Social Justice, looking back over the post-war period, it was plausible that capitalism (with its edges softened by social insurance, and some kind of income support for those without any means) had raised incomes across the board, in Europe and North America.

Extending Hayek, Jason Brennan and John Tomasi (Chapter 8) have recently argued:

  1. that income growth in the bottom 20% of the income distribution tends to track average income growth (citing Dollar and Kray 2002, see also Dollar, Kleineberg and Kraay 2016);
  2. that overly generous, redistributive welfare-state policies and POD-policies that aim to prevent the concentration of wealth and human capital will tend to slow growth…
  3. …therefore (1 + 2) also slowing income growth for the worst off, such that;
  4. these policies will eventually leave the worst-off in an aspirationally-egalitarian society (Brennan calls it "Fairnessland") worse off than they would have been had the society opted for a purer, more freewheeling form of capitalism that maximizes long-run income growth for the worst off ("ParetoSuperiorland").

If Brennan and Tomasi are right, the difference principle taken by itself does not support Rawls’s preferred institutional scheme. If so, the case for ranking property-owning democracy above (welfare-state) capitalism would rest on the importance of securing the fair value of political liberties, and of ensuring fair equality of opportunity, and on expanding the index of advantage used for measuring the level of different positions so as to include workplace autonomy and authority along with income and wealth (Freeman 2007, Chapter 3; Freeman 2011).

My paper focuses on the intergenerational implications of Brennan and Tomasi’s position. The main idea is that if the gap between the bottom-20% income growth rates in Fairnessland and ParetoSuperiorland isn’t big enough, then the present worst off, who are the ones doing the sacrificing, and the future worst off, who are the ones benefitting, won’t be the same people. In that case, the worst off today will be accepting extra inequality that doesn’t benefit them, for the sake of benefitting the future worst off, who will be better off anyway. My paper argues that this form of reasoning is inconsistent with the difference principle. Those who will in any case have less should not be expected to accept even less, just so that those who will in any case have more can have even more – and this, even where the gains to the better off would be larger than the losses to the worse off.

New Paper on Reciprocity and Basic Income

I have a new paper out in Politics, Philosophy & Economics on the Reciprocity Objection to Unconditional Basic Income (UBI). Recipients of a UBI are under no legal obligation to work, study, volunteer, care for dependents or otherwise contribute to society. According to a standard objection, the lack of any associated requirement of contribution puts UBI into conflict with reciprocity (Stuart White, most recently this paper). When one receives benefits from others, one ought to respond in kind by benefitting them; UBI apparently permits people to benefit without benefitting in turn, which is often described as a kind of free-riding. However, advocates have responded that UBI does not represent the proceeds of present labour but of natural resources and past labour (Van Parijs and Vanderborght). The upshot of this argument (from inherited assets) is that the duty of reciprocity doesn’t apply, as there can be no question of giving a fair return to nature or to previous generations. The purpose of my article is to determine whether there is a coherent reciprocity objection to UBI – not whether the objection is decisive all things considered but simply whether there is something to be said on the basis of reciprocity against unconditionality of income support.

As presented above, the reciprocity objection conceives of reciprocity as a duty. Free-riders allegedly violate the duty to respond in kind to the benefits they receive from others. Framed in this way, however, the objection is vulnerable to the response that people ought to be able to opt out of receiving benefits, so as to avoid the responsibility of contributing to their provision. If those who need the good in question couldn’t provide it for themselves without making it available to others, as in the case of standard ‘public’ goods such as light from a lighthouse, there would be a rationale for mandatory participation. Yet income is not a public good in this sense – it is ‘excludable.’

It’s true that there is an efficiency or ‘mutual benefit’ argument for collective provision of protection against involuntary economic hardship, because asymmetric information and adverse selection may undermine private insurance markets. Yet as Joe Heath explains (pp.290-91; see also 93 and 137), the case for public insurance based on market failure will not support the generous forms of income support egalitarians favour.

To sustain the reciprocity objection to UBI, we need to think of reciprocity not as a duty but as a limit on other duties. We owe duties to others regardless of whether they have benefitted us in the past or could benefit us in the future. However, some of these duties may be conditional, at least in part, on the willingness of the other party to comply. If the right to assistance when in need and the correlative duty to provide assistance figure among these conditional moral relations then there is an objection to unconditional income support.

Thinking of reciprocity as a limiting condition rather than itself a duty helps explain how reciprocity can be relevant to the division of natural and inherited assets. While it there may be no duty to return benefits received from nature or from the dead, reciprocity is still relevant to the design of the social institutions that determine how economic resources may be passed down from one generation to the next.

I want to underline three qualifications to my endorsement of the reciprocity objection. First, the question is about conditional versus unconditional income support, not income support versus no income support. In a competitive economic system, there is a reciprocity objection to the absence of income support. Second, as White argues, the reciprocity objection to unconditionality only applies in a society that is otherwise not too unjust. I can’t insist on you complying a particular duty with respect to me (as a condition of my complying with this duty with respect to you) if I have already violated a whole series of other duties with respect to you. Third, the objection is only pro tanto, or other things equal; the article does not provide an all things considered judgment on the justice or wisdom of UBI. So the article is not very practical, if by practical one means “immediately useful in supporting one side of the debate vs. the other.”

Cohen on the Desirability and Feasibility of Socialism

In “Why Not Socialism?”1 G.A. Cohen explains what is objectionable about capitalism, what is desirable about socialism, and why it’s an open question whether socialism is feasible. Part of what’s desirable about socialism is that it realizes a radical kind of equal opportunity. What interests me in this post is the other reason socialism is desirable, which is that it realizes community, and in particular a non-instrumental, non-market form of reciprocity.2 I accept Cohen’s account of the tension between capitalism and reciprocity, but I think it raises problems for his analysis of the feasibility of socialism.

Cohen identifies two obstacles to feasibility: motivation and information (“social technology”). He rejects the motivation problem; people are not too selfish by nature for socialism, though capitalism does train us to operate on the basis of greed and fear. The information problem is more challenging, he thinks. We need to make decisions about resource allocation based on information that doesn’t exist in any one place, but is dispersed throughout the population (Hayek). Each of us has special knowledge of our own preferences, capabilities, and local environment. In a system of prices based on supply and demand, this information gets aggregated in an economical form. I don’t need to know everything everyone else knows, I just need to recognize that the end result of their choices is that the price of some product has risen. That’s enough to tell me that I should turn to some close substitute – or that I should consider producing the good that is in short supply. Letting prices fluctuate with supply and demand allows each individual to choose what to consume and produce, while ensuring that we have enough miners and farmers, not all musicians and hockey players. Unfortunately markets tend to generate unjust inequalities, and encourage us to instrumentalize each other. Cohen admits that we don’t at present know how to realize personal choice and prosperity on a large scale in a manner that is consistent with equality and community. Yet he also insists that we don’t know that we will never know how to do this. So he leaves the feasibility of socialism as an open question. I think he’s missed a motivational problem, however, one that arises from his own account of the value of community.

To explain what’s bad about capitalism, Cohen imagines a camping trip organized on a capitalist basis.

“You could imagine a camping trip where everyone asserts her rights over the pieces of equipment and the talents that she brings, and where bargaining proceeds with respect to who is going to pay what to whom to be allowed, for example, to use a knife to peel the potatoes, and how much he is then going to charge others for those now peeled potatoes which he bought in an unpeeled condition from another camper, and so on. You could base a camping trip on the principles of market exchange and strictly private ownership of the required facilities. Most people would hate that.”

“Harry loves fishing, and Harry is very good at fishing. Consequently, he brings back more fish than others do. Harry says: ‘It’s unfair, how we’re running things. I should have better fish when we dine. I should have only perch, not the mix of perch and catfish that we’ve all been having.’ But his fellow campers say: ‘Oh, for heaven’s sake, Harry, don’t be such a shmuck. You sweat and strain no more than the rest of us do. So, you’re very good at fishing. We don’t begrudge you that special endowment, which is, quite properly, a source of satisfaction to you, but why should we reward that pre-eminence?” (cf Mill).

These passages are meant to show that when on a camping trip, we accept the principle that everyone should share roughly equally in both the benefits and the burdens of the trip, weighted by need on the benefits side, and by ability on the burdens side (Harry shouldn’t expect to work less than others just because he can catch fish more quickly). 

Cohen also thinks that the camping trip involves an attractive form of non-market reciprocity, as an element of community. By ‘community’, Cohen means the shared valuing of mutual concern. In other words, I care about you and you care about me, and we each care that the other cares, etc. (the analogue of common knowledge, but for values rather than beliefs). The normal way shared valuing manifests itself is as non-instrumental reciprocity. 

“I serve you not because of what I can get in return but because you need my service, and you, for the same reason, serve me.”

If the sentence stopped after “need by service” it would express unilateral altruism. Cohen’s idea is that people want to serve others who serve them in turn, because they value such relationships for their own sake, on top of whatever further benefits they may bring. They want to serve not just anyone, but those others who want to serve others. 

“I do not want to be a sucker who serves you regardless of whether you are going to serve me (unless you are unable to), but I nevertheless find value in each part of the conjunction – I serve you and you serve me – and in that conjunction itself I do not regard the first part – I serve you – as simply a means to my real end, which is that you serve me” (67).

This non-instrumental form of reciprocity contrasts with what Cohen calls “market reciprocity,” in which I serve others only to induce them to serve me. Marketplace competition pressures us into treating each other merely as means to our own ends, he claims.

“The immediate motive to productive activity in a market society is typically some mixture of greed and fear, in proportions that vary with the details of a person’s market position and personal character. In greed, other people are seen as possible sources of enrichment, and in fear they are seen as threats. These are horrible ways of seeing other people, however much we have become habituated and inured to them, as a result of centuries of capitalist civilization” (66; also 71).

I agree that reciprocity is in tension with the organization of society on a competitive basis (though Jason Kuznicki expresses some reasonable doubts, based on cases of apparently legitimate market behaviour within friendships). Reciprocity is a promising basis for socialism, as it is a widely shared value. Yet reciprocity also poses an important obstacle to socialism’s feasibility.

Cohen discusses Joseph Carens’ proposal for a socialist society that consciously uses the market for the sake of allocative efficiency, while using the tax and transfer system to cancel out all of the inequalities the market generates. People act so as to maximize their pre-tax income (subject to some prerogative for personal time and projects), while fully understanding that post-tax they will not end up richer than anyone else who works equally hard (incomes will legitimately differ based on preferences for leisure vs the products of labour). From the point of view of reciprocity, this system faces a major hurdle. What assurance does anyone have that their fellow citizens are fulfilling their productive duties? For example, it might be my duty to take the most lucrative employment I can find (pre-tax), even if I like it less than some lower paying job, knowing that post-tax my income will be the same. Are others willing to do the same for me? In any pluralistic society, many people will not share the socialist ethos. And even if the ethos is widely shared, uncertainty can drive noncompliance. Even if I know that we both want to comply, I may be uncertain about whether you know that I know this, and so wonder if you might not comply due to this doubt. In short, if community is based on reciprocity, and if reciprocity has a conditional structure – if reciprocity is distinct from unilateral altruism, as Cohen seems to accept – then there are motivational challenges to socialism’s feasibility, for large-scale societies, not just informational challenges (though information is involved too).

I’ll conclude by mentioning two further issues. First, it’s not clear that this problem is simply one of feasibility, as opposed to desirability. For reciprocity is an element of community, which is a positive value.

Second, Cohen thinks that community goes beyond justice, in the sense that it imposes requirements on us that are in addition to the requirements of justice. Yet reciprocity is closely related to justice. I think we could be committed to reciprocity between citizens without being committed to a strong form of political community, i.e. without always putting first the shared valuing of mutual concern at the level of the polity as a whole. We can be committed to community at different levels, after all.

  1. This essay is available as a short book, but I am referring to the version in the edited collection Democratic Equality: What Went Wrong? For a summary of the book, see Herbert Gintis’s Amazon review. What I say here builds on his points about disagreement and free-riding in large groups, and his other work on reciprocity. ↩︎
  2. In “Publicity, Reciprocity, and Incentives” I used reciprocity to defend the basic structure objection to the socialist critique of productive incentives, but I didn’t discuss “Why Not Socialism?” ↩︎

Review of Moller’s Governing Least

I’ve reviewed Dan Moller’s Governing Least: A New England Libertarianism at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. For other responses, see :

Bryan Caplan

That’s the only response I can find, at the moment, but here’s some related material from Moller:

podcast on

Bleeding Heart Libertarian post

plus a one-sentence-per-chapter summary of the book that I wish I’d read first.

Reciprocity and Populism

Reciprocity and Populism

Samuel Scheffler asks whether Rawls’s theory of justice has anything to say about the rise of Trump and populism. Rawls’s theory is primarily about what the right principles of justice are, not what explains people’s behaviour. But Rawls did discuss the stability of conceptions of justice, and in doing so he relied on the empirical hypothesis of motivation by reciprocity, which may help explain recent events.

Stability: Imagine that a given a set of principles were successfully implemented in a society’s public institutions. Would that society have a tendency to correct any subsequent deviations from justice that might arise? The answer depends in part on whether people growing up under those institutions would develop an effective and appropriate sense of justice. Rawls thought that his own conception of justice was more stable than utilitarianism because it fit better with reciprocity, the tendency to respond in kind. He viewed motivation by reciprocity as a deep trait of human nature, constructed by evolution rather than culture and social institutions. Utilitarianism permits inequalities if they maximize the aggregate, which could require that some accept less than others so that those others can have even more than they would otherwise have, e.g. [2,4] < [1,7], because 6 < 8. In contrast, Rawls’s “difference principle” requires that inequalities benefit all, which in a simple two-position scenario means that inequalities must increase the size of the smaller share (hence [2,4] > [1,7] because 2 > 1).

Scheffler draws on this connection between reciprocity and the difference principle to suggest that what accounts for the rise of Trump and populism is in part the United States’ “failure to achieve – or even to strive seriously to achieve – an ideal of reciprocity.” During the last 40 years, the US has experienced “skyrocketing economic inequality.” It is almost as if the US has been intent upon maximizing the size of the biggest share rather than the smallest. No surprise, then, that we are witnessing a backlash, the consequence of “resentments inspired by sustained inequality.”

In a recently published response to Scheffler, Paul Weithman argues that resentment at rising inequality is a misdiagnosis of the causes of populism. Weithman draws on Arlie Hocschild’s study of Tea Party supporters in Louisiana. In a widely quoted passage, Hochschild uses the metaphor of people waiting in line to realize the American Dream, while others, aided by government, cut in line. Hochschild argues that support for Trump and populism is motivated by a sense that the government is taking from ordinary hard-working folks to give a leg up to people who may be in need but who aren’t deserving, the line-cutters, people who feel no shame in taking government handouts when they could work, handouts paid for by the taxes of others who are willing to work. “The government has become an instrument for redistributing your money to the undeserving” (Hochschild, quoted by Weithman). Weithman points out that the resentment Hochschild describes is not directed at the great gains made by the better off. Instead it is directed downward.1

“Hochschild’s interviewees clearly think their government violates a demand of reciprocity. But they do not think it has done so by allowing objectionable gains to the best-off. They think it has done so by allowing objectionable gains to the worstoff.”

Weithman has two official explanations of the problem. The first has to do with the fact that we can measure mutual benefit with respect to different points of comparison or “benchmarks.” Hochschild’s respondents look at what they had in the past, and what they would have had had they not been taxed so heavily to pay for benefits for those below them. In contrast, in Rawls’s theory equality is the benchmark, so these comparisons to historical baselines are not relevant. The second explanation has to do with the fact that mutual benefit from inequality gets complicated when there are multiple social positions, instead of just two. In a multi-position scenario, the situation of the least well-off can be improved at the expense of those who are just above them, the second-worst off, who are still far from the best off.2 Weithman suggests that we might reduce downward-oriented resentment by adopting universal programs that would reestablish “chain connection,” which was Rawls’s terms for the situation in which gains to the worst off also benefit the next worst off, and so on up the line.

There is more obvious failure of reciprocity, however, in the perceptions of Hochschild’s respondents. It’s right there in Hochschild’s quote; desert. Weithman does mention “merit and hard work.” And he notes that Hochschild’s respondents wouldn’t accept Rawls’s baseline of equality because they don’t think that the ‘takers’ are making the same contributive effort as are the ‘makers’. Weithman doesn’t say anything further about this perceived violation of norms of contribution and personal responsibility, however.

What are people resentful about? Is it that the worst off have gained while they, the next worst off, or those in the middle, have lost? Not exactly. If we accept Hochschild’s results, what people resent is at that the worst off have gained unfairly at their expense, by cutting in line – this is the perception she reports – while they (the next worst off) have played by the rules. The rules in question are rules of personal responsibility and social contribution. The problem with the government programs her respondents object to (and the taxes that support them) is not that only some people get them; as Martin Gilens argues, that isn’t perceived as a problem if the people are blamelessly in need, as in the case of medical care in old age. No one can avoid getting old. The perceived problem is that people can modify their behaviour to make themselves recipients by avoiding work (i.e. moral hazard).

For me, the question Hochschild’s study raises is whether Rawls hasn’t missed the boat on desert. The idea of individual deservingness plays an ambiguous role in his theory of justice. On the one hand, inherited inequalities of income and wealth count as morally arbitrary because they are undeserved; no one chooses their parents. These inequalities therefore have to be justifiable to everyone, in order to be consistent with mutual respect in a society of equals. On the other hand, Rawls went to argue that ideas about desert were out of place when invoked as standards of assessment for basic social institutions. (By acting within the rules people would gain entitlements of various kinds, but the system of entitlements was not designed as a means to rewarding the deserving, nor of punishing the undeserving).

Many people have questioned Rawls’s theory of justice on the grounds that it assigns no fundamental role to desert (e.g. David Miller and Michael Sandel). Popular thinking does seem to assign an important place to desert. So it is striking to read Rawlsians debate the bases of populist resentment without explicitly engaging the issue. The debate is about whether resentment results from the outsized gains of the better off, which don’t seem to be benefitting everyone else, or from the small gains of the worst off, which are perceived to come at the expense of the next worst off or of those in the middle. But if the real issue is about perceived violations of reciprocity at an individual level, these issues about changes in relative standing of different parts of the income distribution are not fundamental. One might even argue that the Rawls’s theory is not helpful for thinking about our current situation, precisely because it rejects desert as a principle of justice.

However, I think that would be a mistake. For reciprocity can itself be a ground of desert. We say that one good turn deserves another, after all. The thought is not that benefiting others may be a good way of eliciting benefits from them, though this is often true. It’s that in many contexts it is fitting to respond to receipt of benefits by benefitting others in turn, even apart from any prospect of future gains. From this perspective, government programs that provide assistance unconditionally may be perceived to undermine reciprocity, since they make it possible for some who are able to benefit others not to contribute but simply to receive. (Reciprocity can also be understood as a limit on general duties, rather than a duty to return benefits).

There has been a lot of discussion of this objection to unconditionality, the objection from reciprocity or exploitation. The issue is complicated for a number of reasons, in particular:

  1. the reciprocity objection might be valid other things equal but not decisive all things considered, when balanced against other considerations, e.g. expanding people’s effective range of choice.
  2. reciprocity might speak against unconditionality in some respects but *for* it in others, e.g. if it would help mitigate a lack of reciprocity between men and women with respect to household labour (see pp.98-, the section on “free-riding and household labour”).
  3. the demand for reciprocity might apply only if surrounding institutions are not too unjust, making conditionality itself conditional.

I’d like to make a more general point about markets and reciprocity. In thinking about reciprocity and unconditionality of government assistance, we need to think about the alternative, which is market determination of income. And we should recognize that a competitive economic system encourages non-reciprocal behaviour. It is true that if I want something you own, I have to give you something I own in return. That is a kind of reciprocity, if one compares it to the alternative of my taking what you have by force (paying the iron price, as they say in the Game of Thrones’ Iron Islands, rather than the gold price). However, a competitive system puts pressure on people not to reciprocate good behaviour in the past, but to maximize future returns. When in a downturn or due to technological change firms let go workers whose skills are superfluous, they will often have to ignore the fact that these individuals worked conscientiously at their allotted tasks. There is a social benefit to ignoring reciprocity, in such cases, which is that these choices send signals about scarcity of resources relative to preferences, but this is an argument based on efficiency, not fairness. (For an illustration of this point, see G.A. Cohen’s discussion of the way his father’s career in a Montreal clothing factory ended, at pp.180-1 of If you’re an egalitarian, how come you are so rich?)

  1. In Scheffler’s defence, it might be said that even if resentment is not consciously directed at large gains of the better off, it may still be caused by it. Stagnation of median wages along with large gains at the top end can make it feel that the line is getting longer, getting stretched out. And then when some are perceived to be cutting in line, the reaction is stronger than it might otherwise be. 
  2. For example, with four positions, consider A:[1,4,7,10] vs B:[2,3,8,15]. B > A by maximin because 2 > 1, but there is arguably more inequality in B, and it’s not benefitting everyone, since 3 < 4. 

Review of Singer The Form of the Firm

Abraham Singer has written a book called The Form of the Firm: A Normative Political Theory of the Corporation (OUP 2018). I have a short review up at Perspectives on Politics.

Firms are interesting because they aren’t individualistic (like markets) or egalitarian (like formal democratic politics), but hierarchical and bureaucratic. Political philosophy has tended to focus on basic social institutions, and business ethics on the conduct of individual economic agents. Singer asks why firms exist, what purposes they serve, and what standards should we apply in assessing their behaviour, and the laws and policies that regulate / constitute firms. He does a good job of explaining the economics to non-economists (at least so thinks this non-economist). The central empirical idea is that firms leverage social norms to overcome problems of trust that arise in purely contractual relationships when one of the parties is asked to invest in a specific form of production, making it dependent on the other party continuing to purchase what it produces. If firms are already taking advantage of norms, why not make these norms democratic? Singer’s response is that firms need to be able to compete against other firms and against the market itself, and that there are costs to more democratic forms of ownership and workplace organization. So he thinks government should encourage but not mandate worker cooperatives. On the business ethics side, he thinks firms and their managers have responsibilities other than maximizing shareholder profits, but not to stakeholders generally. The main extra duty is not to create or take advantage of market failures that arise from factors such as externalities and unequal information, though Singer also floats the idea that firms have responsibilities to address the most egregious ‘justice failures’ as well. I learned alot from this book. I think next year I will incorporate a chapter in my PPE course, probably for the topic of economic / workplace democracy.

Reciprocity and Productive Incentives

I have a paper that’s been published at the Canadian Journal of Philosophy entitled “Publicity, Reciprocity and Incentives.” The paper mounts a partial defense of what’s known as the “basic structure objection” to the egalitarian critique of productive incentives. The first paragraph provides an overview of the questions at stake:

There is a longstanding debate about the extent to which social justice permits individuals to benefit from their natural talents. On the one hand, it may seem that individuals have a right to the fruits of their labour. On the other hand, superior abilities are already rewarded with personal enjoyment and public admiration of their exercise, ‘without adding to these a superior share of the world’s goods’ (Mill 1969, 254). Socialists recognized that it might be necessary to offer incentives for those with scarce talents to put them to good use, but they tended to view this ‘rent of ability’ as an unfortunate compromise (Jackson 2007, 72-9). Liberal egalitarians have not been so clear about the moral status of incentives. If inequalities benefit the worst off, Rawls’s difference principle seems to count them as just. Yet critics argued that individuals who accepted the rationale for this principle would not expect extraordinary wages for ordinary work, simply because they were blessed with superior productive ability (Grey 1973; Narveson 1976; Cohen 1992). According to G.A. Cohen, people’s economic choices ought to be guided by an egalitarian ethos (Cohen 2008, 2, 17, 123). Even if we all shared the same egalitarian conception of justice, however, we might be uncertain about the extent of compliance with duties that are not legally enforceable. Moreover, real societies are home to a diversity of conceptions of justice, many of them not egalitarian. Are egalitarian norms still binding, or might lack of assurance about the compliance of others justify what would otherwise be objectionably self-interested choices?

The paper addresses a longstanding debate about liberal egalitarian conceptions of distributive justice. If social inequalities benefit the worst off it seems they can be justified to the worst off, rendering these inequalities compatible with mutual respect in a society of equals (Rawls’s “difference principle”). Unequal pay for equally arduous work could incentivize those with scarce skills to deploy them where they are most needed, and so generate prosperity that could benefit everyone, including the worst off. Early on, critics (Thomas Grey, Jan Narveson) questioned whether such incentives were truly justifiable to the worst off. Are those with scarce talents morally justified in withholding their efforts from the community unless rewarded with superior pay for the same amount of work? It may be true that inequality-generating incentives will benefit the worst off, but this claim is not one that the better off could offer to the worse off as a justification for these inequalities, because it is the decisions of the better off that are responsible for making it the case that unequal rewards are necessary to elicit their productive effort. G. A. Cohen argued that in a fully just society, people’s everyday economic decisions would reflect an “egalitarian ethos.” People with greater productive capacity wouldn’t bargain so hard for higher pay, and would be willing to work reasonably hard even under high marginal taxation. They would even make some sacrifices in career choice, accepting more productive work they enjoy less, for the sake of benefitting the worse off (though some incentives would still count as just, because individuals have a prerogative to pursue their own interests, to some reasonable degree).

One response to this critique of incentives was to argue that justice doesn’t apply to personal choices, but only to basic social institutions, e.g. the design of rules of property and contract, taxation and inheritance, family law, funding of education. That’s the “basic structure objection” (to the egalitarian criticism of productive incentives).

Cohen claimed that the basic structure objection faces a dilemma. If the basic structure only includes coercive rules, principles of justice will ignore social norms that are not enforced by the state but which have profound impacts on people’s lives (e.g. norms about gender), while if the basic structure includes norms not codified in law, principles of justice will apply to personal choices too, because that is where such norms reside. Andrew Williams sought to evade Cohen’s dilemma by arguing that the rules of the basic structure need not be coercive but must be public, and that the norms of Cohen’s egalitarian ethos could not achieve the necessary publicity. In order for rules to count as public, it must be clear what they require of us and whether others are complying. The rules of Cohen’s egalitarian ethos allegedly can’t count as public, because verification of compliance would require too much information about individual circumstance.

Williams’s critics have tended to interpret the publicity defence in an uncharitably strict manner — assuming, for example, that in order to resist the critique of incentives we must claim that all duties of justice are conditional on confidence that everyone is complying. In my view, the main weakness of the publicity defence is that its rationale is underdeveloped. Verifiability of whether others are complying is necessary in order to have positive assurance that they are, but what justifies making compliance of others a condition for duties to be binding in the first place? The fact that general compliance with duties of justice would be a good thing doesn’t show that these duties are conditional on general compliance. If people are motivated by reciprocity, conceptions of justice that are too unilateral may be unstable. The stability rationale simply shows that true justice may be infeasible, however, not that duties of justice truly are conditional. What’s needed is an ethical rather than a merely psychological interpretation of reciprocity. The purpose of my paper is to explain the structure of a reciprocity condition on some requirements of justice, and to make the justification for such a condition clearer than it has been in the literature.

The fact that some of our duties of justice are conditional on reciprocity is a consequence of the relational or `second-personal’ nature of social justice, I argue, drawing on Elizabeth Anderson, Stephen Darwall, and Jiwei Ci. The reciprocity condition is fundamentally bilateral, but may take on a proportional form due to uncertainty or because conduct cannot be targeted to specific individuals. Not all duties are conditional on reciprocity, because some duties are owed to third parties, as well as to their primary targets. Our basic moral duties have this multilateral structure. Duties of egalitarian distributive justice are conditional, however. Critics of incentives may admit that some duties are conditional on reciprocity, but insist that exploitation, like racism, is wrong regardless of whether others are engaging in it. Here the paper engages with Seana Shiffrin’s reworking of Cohen’s argument. Some forms of exploitation are unconditionally wrong, I concede, but not the specific form of exploitation at stake in Cohen’s critique of incentives.