Robert Skidelsky, John Rawls and Political Philosophy

I saw this earlier on the LSE Politics Blog and had a very satisfying flashback to being a political philosophy masters student. My struggle to articulate the intense frustration political philosophy of this sort provoked in me is what left me so ready to switch to sociology once I understood what it was:

You say ‘Post Rawlsian liberalism and neoclassical economics both forbid any public preference for this or that way of life’ (p. 93).

They forbid it in political theory. But in fact, it’s shaped for us by very powerful forces, forces of power, which classical economics ignores. Both Rawls and neoclassical economics share a kind of methodological individualism; they postulate voluntary decisions reached by individuals detached from any of the context in which individuals decide things. Rawls has his ‘veil of ignorance’ where all kinds of things that in real life actually influence the way people decide their choices are removed by assumption. The same is true in neoclassical economics. They both come out of a particular American tradition where methodological individualism is the only form of analysis. These two powerful disciplines are united on that single premise. 

Though oddly enough my interest in political philosophy has been reawakened in the last year or two. Partly this is the influence of Andrew Sayer’s recent work. It’s also because I can see the intellectual value in Anglo-American political philosophy now I’m no longer chronically irritated by it not being something other than it is.

The Skidelsky answer also reminded me of a wonderful dismissal of Rawls I read years ago and have never been able to find again. It went something along the lines of: “the ‘veil of ignorance’ proves nothing more than that Kantian persons in Kantian circumstances would make Kantian choices”. I suspect it may have been Michael Sandel but I’m far from certain. Please do leave a comment if you happen to know the quote I’m talking about as I’ve looked quite extensively for this and haven’t been able to find it.

The rest of the interview is worth reading. I particularly liked this section:

Despite our societies growing as rich as Keynes expected when he penned ‘economic possibilities of our grandchildren’ in 1930, our working hours have not fallen as he predicted. Why is this?

We examine lots of possible reasons for this. Two of them are essentially spurious and the other three are worth attention. The first spurious one is that we work so hard because we love work in a quite crude sense. I don’t think that’s right. The evidence is that most people prefer to work shorter hours. Secondly, we work so hard because we’re terrified of leisure. Again because people actually prefer shorter hours the evidence is against that.

A more serious reason is that we’re greedy. We’re greedy for the things that work brings. It’s not that we enjoy the work, but that we enjoy the money which enables us to satisfy our desires and these wants become more and more relative as societies get richer. Comparison of their fortune with others grows more and more acute.

I think there is this element of insatiability, restlessness, what people call ‘getting bored with what we’ve got’. But against that is the thought that for thousands of years, the quantity of materials and services didn’t really increase, so where was all this insatiability and greed at that time? It was repressed by moral codes of one kind or another.

Fourth, and even more serious, we live in an institutional setting called capitalism. And capitalism does inflame insatiability, releases insatiability, makes insatiability the engine of the machine. It makes it the engine of growth. Without insatiability there couldn’t be growth, it would stop at some point. Therefore it does anything it can to inflame insatiability, and advertising is one of the chief mechanisms for that.

Finally, there is also a power system to consider. We don’t choose how long to work, we don’t choose between work and leisure in the way that neoclassical economics would say that we trade off these things. And the other thing that has happened more recently is that it has become very evident that without countervailing power of one kind or another, capitalism does produce huge inequality of wealth and income which keeps lots of people quite poor even though society as a whole gets richer. So the distributional effects of unrestrained capitalism are very inimical to taking more time off work. So I think that these are all explanations of why we got richer on average but haven’t given up work to anything like the extent Keynes thought we would. 


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