Rawls’ Take on Wall Street

November 27, 2011

Political Theory


So obviously everyone is aware of the Occupy Wall Street protests, or at least I hope so.  Occupy protestors want things such as better jobs and a more equal distribution of income.  There is a difference in wealth (the 99% vs 1%) between the wealthy and the rest of the country that is still growing.  The movement has gained a great deal of support and sprung up other Occupy protests across the country.  But are all these people correct in protesting against this inequality?  Let’s take a more theoretical look from the great American philosopher, John Rawls.

The protest of economic inequality would have been right up Rawls’ alley.  I read an article on the New York Times website discussing the issue.  Rawls’ writings and philosophy can be applied to the situation and we can better understand his stance by looking at his principles.  Rawls would be a supporter of the Occupy protestors, as written in his work Justice as Fairness.  He would argue that the protest is justified for the majority.  However, as the article states, he would also argue that the protest should be aimed toward the “policies and institutions that have permitted only the wealthiest to enjoy significant gains of economic growth.”

One of the big questions though is: Is there fair equality of opportunity?  If there is not, then protesters have a valid argument. If there is is though, then it seems as though the protest would not be as strong.  Do you believe that everyone has an equal opportunity or do you agree with protesters?

Rawls was big on two principles: equal liberty and difference.  I believe both principles can be applied to Occupy Wall Street, but his second principle coincides more strongly with the protest.  With the difference principle, Rawls believes that social and economic inequalities are satisfied if they are to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society.  In other words, the lives of those who are currently worst off will be improved.  This is indeed what protesters are going for, considering one of their main arguments is that the social and economic inequality gap is way too large.

I would like to hear what you guys think; both your theoretical views and your opinions.  First, do you agree that Rawls would favor protesters of Occupy Wall Street? And what is your personal stance on the protest?  Do you think the people are right in arguing that the economic wealth is too unequal and unfair?

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5 Comments on “Rawls’ Take on Wall Street”

  1. keroboim Says:

    First, I agree that Rawl’s would favor the protesters, given that the social and economic inequalities do not benefit the least advantaged members of society. Also, the protesters are doing the right thing, which is advocating for the least advantaged members of society.

    On the OWS movement as a whole, I believe the protesters are partly justified. I think some of the protesters have not had equal opportunity due to socio-economic disadvantages and the rest have but chose professions that do not have a lot of earning power. The top 1% consists of individuals who are executives, managers, supervisors, medical and finance professionals, and those who work in the computer, engineering and technical sectors earning at least $516,633 last year, according to the Washington Post. Most individuals who do not fit the common stereotype of executives, managers, and supervisors may be screened out based on gender and/or race. While many of the protesters may be at a great disadvantage since they could have been in a dysfunctional public school district or college was not as attractive as immediately finding work to support his/her family, many of them may have chose the wrong profession to enter. All the individuals in the aforementioned professions may not make over half a million a year, but I can guarantee they earn more than the median household income.

    The protesters are right in arguing that economic wealth is unfair but, unfortunately, I do not see this trend reversing in the near future. As the global economy becomes larger and more sophisticated, the earning potential of individuals who control companies increase. So how do we prevent the gap from widening? Should there be a cap on earnings for each profession? Should the minimum wage rate increase faster than the rate of inflation?

    Lastly, I wonder if this movement would be here if the 2008 financial crisis did not happen and firms weren’t bailed out using taxpayer dollars. Their would still be income inequality, but the protesters may not perceive executives as negatively if there were no bailouts. Ultimately, if this were the case, the main question still remains: what are realistic solutions to close the gap in income inequality?

  2. ymsyed Says:

    We actually talked about this in discussion a couple weeks ago, and decided that Rawls’ ideas do support a movement such as Occupy Wall Street.

    However, I think it is important to note that Rawls acknowledged that not everyone is equal, and that differences do exist. His ideas simply stated the least advantaged members of society should be as well of as they possibly can be. That could consist of 1% of the population controlling 99% of the wealth. What Rawls’ ideas are against, however, is unequal opportunity, as you both have stated. If we make the assumption that 99% of the population does not have access to the same opportunities at the other 1%, I think that OWS would be justified. I am sure that a lot of people–regardless of how they feel about OWS–hold this to be true.

    Simply to spur thought, I thought that you guys could take a look at this: http://iwastesomuchtime.com/on/?i=14866

    It provides an alternative, interesting take on many of the woes that OWS is fighting for.

  3. nluongo Says:

    I think that we cannot necessarily take for granted that Rawls would agree with the OWS protesters that the current wealth distribution is bad for the country. As was stated earlier, Rawls’ only criterion for judging inequality is whether or not it benefits the least fortunate of society. While one could say that it is pretty obvious that our current system doesn’t help the least fortunate as much as it could, it is not a given.

    Looking at difference of opportunity, I think it is easier to invoke Rawls as a supporter of the movement. One thing he would say is that as getting a college degree becomes more expensive, it prevents some people that used to be able to pay for college from getting a degree and moving up the ladder. Therefore, there exists a greater inequality of opportunity between those who can and cannot afford college which Rawls would have a problem with.

    In response to the picture linked above, I think that it is a bit myopic to believe that just because one person can make it through college debt-free that OWS has no valid point. The person states that they received scholarships that paid for 90% of tuition which certainly isn’t possible for everyone. It is not impossible to do what this person did, but it is becoming increasingly more difficult and if the trend continues even the student working 30 hours a week won’t be able to afford to go to college.

  4. rfieds Says:

    Given the immense economic gaps present in our society today, I think it is fair to assume that Rawls would support the protestors of Occupy Wall Street. Rawls would agree that since the protestors represent the majority of the American people, their actions are warranted and deemed okay deemed okay. It seems as if the least fortunate of society are in effect being benefited from the Occupy Wall Street protests. The reason is that they are all coming together and fighting for a common purpose. Today, college degrees are harder and more expensive to achieve these days. Accordingly, the chance for social mobility is that much harder. This is the primary reason why Rawls would be a supporter of what is happening on wall street today.
    However, one may make the argument that that the protestors are merely making matters worse for themselves and the majority. They are out there protesting when they should be focused on job seeking and finding ways to better themselves. They should be focused more on how to make social mobility easier for themselves than holding out on a protest that has seemingly failed to provoke change. While I think the problem of social mobility has infiltrated society too much at this point in time, I do not think that protesting is the answer. I do think that we all need to make a collective effort to make the poor richer and not the rich richer. Yes, the government is the main conduit to action but protesting wall street is obviously not the answer.

  5. samyoovpolsci Says:

    To be honest, i am extremely confused on this issue. I understand the anguish of these people who are a part of the Occupy Wall street movement. However, at the same time, i do not believe that their movement will achieve anything. Due to the massive gap between the “rich” and the “poor” and the sheer vastness of inequality, Rawls would probably support this movement.
    In regards to equal opportunity, i believe that in the work force, equal opportunity is prevalent. However, it is in the education system that the problem arises. As those who have money, the “1%” can afford good education, both tertiary and post-highschool, it is only natural that they spend their time and money get higher degrees than those who simply cannot afford such luxuries. Hence, people who are in the top 1% deserve to be in that position. These people took the time and the money to get jobs which would place them, economically, above others. As such is the case, no one can really chastise them for being rich. Furthermore, in the last decade, there has been a greater amount of high school drop outs than half a century ago. This would only amount to greater inequality in the future as these high school drop-outs would most likely end up doing labour focused jobs.
    This is a problem of the Government not the people. And the answer to the problem is not clear. I personally have no idea what the solution can be…except maybe to improve the public school system

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