Monday, May 4, 2009

John Rawls and Deep Economy

John Rawls was concerned with what we call distributive justice and the question of what we should do about inequalities in society. Should goods be distributed equally to everyone? Should we permit vast differences in social and economic status? How are justice and socioeconomic opportunity tied to each other?

This is relevant to Bill McKibben's book Deep Economy in two ways.

1. First, we can use the justice framework to make the case that our social system (that is, our system of social policy, ethics, and economic exchange) is conventional. We have a certain social/political/economic system and it produces certain results. But we don’t have to have that system. It might be the most just system, or it might undermine justice. If it does not produce the maximum degree of justice, then we should try to change it so that it is more just. In particular, we should always be working to try to improve the status of those that have the least, and we should always try to give people equality of opportunity.

This observation supports McKibben in his attempt to rethink economics, and in particular in his attempt to replace some market trends with a deeper concern for community. He argues very much like someone in the justice framework would: he argues that deeper and more robust communities will make people happier and will be more economically stable. This last point is important, because in the justice framework, people are risk-averse.

2. A second way that Rawls’s justice framework can be linked to the book is McKibben’s recognition that for people who are living at a subsistence level, access to global markets makes more sense than pursuing deeper, local economies. That’s because McKibben, like Rawls, knows that the concerns of people who have the least social status and economic goods will be different than those who have plenty.

If you're interested in more of my thoughts about what Deep Economy gets right (and wrong), you can read what I've written here.

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