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. 

3 thoughts on “Reciprocity and Populism”

  1. I think you (and Rawls, and most economists) exaggerate the degree to which people are driven by instrumental rationality. They’re far more interested in honour. That’s why I agree with those for whom what drove people to vote for Trump was, above all, status-anxiety: e.g. https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2016/12/there-s-one-word-explains-why-i-got-it-wrong-over-brexit-and-trump.

    Another reason Rawls can’t help us explain Trump is that Rawls is, in part, RESPONSIBLE FOR Trump: http://digressions.angstpatrol.com/donald-trump-and-john-rawls/

    1. Except that reciprocity in this context is non-instrumental, what is sometimes called “strong reciprocity”, not “I scratch your back so you scratch mine” but “you treated me well so I’m inclined to treat you well even if know I’ll never see you again and no one is watching and I could get away with not doing so.” Rawls’s moral psychology is based on this tendency, starting from children’s tendency to love those that care for them.

      1. Yes, Rawls’ moral psychology is indeed childish, what with his emphasis on fairness (one shared, incidentally, with monkeys: http://plus.lapresse.ca/screens/c923b837-a136-41fc-ad8a-7b8b53d8628b__7C___0.html). In any case, the way you describe strong reciprocity (i.e. how it brings to mind what one “could get away with”) brings out its complicity with instrumental relations. This distorts e.g. childrens’ love, since they tend to love their parents regardless of whether they care for them.

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