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.

Forthcoming Paper on Frank Knight and John Rawls

A few years ago I wrote a paper on Hayek and Rawls (ungated early version here). This, plus teaching a course on libertarianism, led me to the early 20th century University of Chicago economist Frank Knight. One of the points of commonality between Hayek and Rawls is their scepticism about desert as the basis for social institutions. This scepticism owes much to Frank Knight. Rawls cited Knight’s 1923 essay “The Ethics of Competition” in the discussion of desert from A Theory of Justice, and in an earlier essay cited Hayek, who in turn cited Knight. Knight is remembered as one of the founders of Chicago economics, and thus indirectly one of the fathers of free market fundamentalism. He was indeed a teacher / colleague of both Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. Yet Knight was a fierce critic of what he took to be bad, simplistic arguments for laissez-faire, chief among them the view that by distributing income according to marginal product the competitive system rewards the deserving. Knight didn’t deny that marginal productivity explained the distribution of income, he just denied that reward according to marginal product was ethically important, in itself. Hayek and Friedman had essentially the same view. The virtue of reward by marginal product is efficiency, not fairness. It’s surprising, then, to read that neoliberalism teaches that markets reward the deserving. I posted about this earlier, but now I have a paper on the topic forthcoming in PPE. It’s called “Markets, Desert, and Reciprocity,” but its subtitle could be “Knight, Hayek, Friedman, and Rawls (vs. Bell, Nozick, Sandel, etc.)” The final section includes some discussion of the reciprocity objection to proposals for an unconditional basic income.

Review of Gaus’s Order of Public Reason

I’ve written a longish review of Jerry Gaus’s The Order of Public Reason (CUP, 2010).  The review is called “The Classical Tilt of Justificatory Liberalism,” because I raise some doubts about whether justificatory liberalism does incline in favour of classical liberalism, as against social justice liberalism.  However, the main purpose of the essay is just to lay out Gaus’s overall argument about how the authority we claim over each other’s conduct in ordinary social morality can be justified.  The answer, perhaps not surprisingly given the title of the book, is “only if this morality is publicly justifiable,” (where “publicly justifiable” has its technical sense of “being acceptable to each and everyone one of a range of reasonable but conflicting points of view,” rather than the ordinary meaning of “being justifiable in public, without need for (noble) lies”).  The book also argues that, correctly understood, our everyday moral practices (e.g. feeling and expressing resentment, indignation, forgiveness, and so on) presuppose a recognition of others as free and equal persons.  And the book reconciles the explanatory / evolutionary / Humean perspective on morality with the justificatory / Kantian perspective on morality.  All that for the low price of CDN $60.78 (low on a per page basis, that is; it’s 549 pages long, not counting appendices etc.).  This is a very ambitious book because it aims to synthesize a wide range of material from diverse fields in the service of a general argument that unfolds over the course of the whole book (comparable to A Theory of Justice, in that respect).  My main aim was to state that overall argument in a radically condensed form.  And of course to question the classical tilt.

Public Reason vs. Social Justice?

One of the things I’ve done this year is to rework the main portions of my paper “Public Justification and the Limits of State Action“, as a chapter for my book manuscript about public reason and political community. This chapter addresses a common objection to Rawls’s “political liberalism,” which is that if reasonable disagreement about the nature of the good life requires the state not promote or discourage any of these rival conceptions, but there is room for reasonable disagreement about justice as well as about the good life, then the state may not implement controversial conceptions of social justice, or do much of anything.
Continue reading Public Reason vs. Social Justice?

Recent Activity

Not yet back in town, but in the meantime, some work to report:

The ‘Mirage’ of Social Justice: Hayek Against (and For) Rawls” Slightly revised text of a lecture I gave at Balliol College, May 10, 2011. Thanks to last year’s POLS 456 class for stimulating these thoughts about why Hayek was really a Rawlsian (or would have been, if he’d consistently applied his basic normative ideas). I will be reworking this paper for publication as part of a symposium on Hayek, so comments are welcome.

“Justice as Fairness and Reciprocity.” A paper about the relationship between justice and reciprocity, starting from the disability critique of Rawls’s contractualism, moving on to global justice. Also based on a lecture I gave this year at Balliol. The paper will be published in the journal Analyze & Kritik.

Conference Papers

Two recent conference papers I’ve written are available online. The first was for the MPSA annual meeting in Chicago, is called “Epistemic Proceduralism and the Scope of Democratic Authority,” and is about the role of public justification in David Estlund’s theory of democracy. The argument is quite a bit different than in my Representation article – I’m less worried about the objection that the principle of public justifiability might not itself be publicly justifiable, and more worried about the scope of political authority the principle will permit. The paper also begins with what I think is a better explanation of what I take to be Estlund’s basic idea, and why it is important.

The second is called “Justice and Reciprocity,” and is for the CPSA meeting going on this week in Montreal.

Justice and Reciprocity

I’ve posted a new paper on SSRN about “Justice and Reciprocity.”  Here is the abstract:

This paper addresses the question of when and why duties are conditional on compliance on the part of others, by examining the role of reciprocity in Rawls’s theory of justice. In particular, it argues that the idea of reciprocity and the relational nature of distributive justice can help explain three otherwise puzzling aspects of Rawls’s view: (1) his claim that justice has to be “congruent” with the good; (2) his claim that the justification of a political conception of justice depends on showing that an overlapping consensus of reasonable comprehenisve doctrines is possible, even after the freestanding argument for the political conception has been successfully completed (3) his claim that there are no global duties of distributive justice, beyond the non-comparative duties of aid and reparation. Each of these arguments has been the subject of controversy partly because of a lack of attention to reciprocity, the paper argues, and the relational nature of Rawls’s non-luck-egalitarian position.

Under (1) the paper addresses the debate between Samuel Freeman and Brian Barry about congruence.  Under (2) the paper addresses the criticisms Jurgen Habermas and Brian Barry made of Rawls’s political liberalism, specifically, their criticisms of Rawls’s two-stage model of justification.  Under (3) the paper discusses arguments by Michael Blake, Arash Abizadeh, Andrea Sangiovanni, Joe Heath, and again Sam Freeman.  Reciprocity is the thread that holds it all together.