Taking Employment Seriously: Amending Rawls’s Theory of Justice

By Larry Udell

John Rawls

John Rawls commented in A Theory of Justice that a just society will ensure “full employment in the sense that anyone who wants to work will be able to do so.” His commitment to full employment never wavered, and he noted in Political Liberalism that “[t]he lack of…the opportunity for meaningful work and occupation is destructive…of citizens’ self-respect.”  He proposed government as the employer of last resort, a proposal he reiterated in The Law of Peoples and the Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy. Yet his published works mention full employment only in these occasional remarks and his theory of justice did not include a full employment principle; he rather assumed that a fair system of social cooperation involves citizens contributing to society in exchange for their income and wealth. After all, the fundamental injustices are those that the principles of justice address, and Rawls’s principles of justice do not address unemployment.

This assumption has proved to be a grave defect in Rawls’s theory, and one that I believe Rawls himself would acknowledge today. Happily, it is easily remedied. We need only add employment to Rawls’s list of primary goods, which in turn leads the parties in the original position to elevate Rawls’s statement on full employment that I quoted at the outset to a fundamental principle of justice. By explicitly recognizing the injustice of unemployment in an economy where employment is allocated by a labor market, the amended theory is simply a better statement of what Rawls wanted to say about unemployment and I should propose it as a friendly amendment. Recall that the list of primary goods was provisional and Rawls allowed that we may add to this list should it prove necessary. The forty-five years since the publication of A Theory of Justice has proved just this.

It may seem that Rawls’s comment about the importance of employment for one’s self-respect makes the amendment unnecessary, but I should argue that the importance of employment for self-respect leads in a precisely opposite direction. Thus Thomas Pogge notes that all the primary goods are important for citizens’ sense of self-respect and therefore dubs the fifth primary good “the residual social bases of self-respect.” The primary goods are thus those that are most important for citizens’ sense of self-respect, and to tie employment to self-respect without considering it as primary, while allowing that employment has some relevance to justice, fails to identify it as fundamental to justice. This plainly seemed acceptable to Rawls in 1971, but I do believe he would not want to continue to model it in this way today.

John Maynard Keynes

Nevertheless, it is reasonable to ask why Rawls would have neglected something as important as this, particularly since he grew up during 1930s. The short answer is that the full employment assumption was a consequence of his ideal theory, but not simply because it is intuitive that an ideal society would involve full employment. I should argue that it rather entered his model conception of a well-ordered society with the economic model at the core of it, to wit, general equilibrium theory, where full employment is a fundamental assumption of the model of a free market economy. Thus, Rawls’s ideal/non-ideal theory includes the economic ideal/non-ideal model known in economics as the Neoclassical Synthesis, where the supposed synthesis is between the ideal general equilibrium theory and the non-ideal Keynesian response to departures from equilibrium. In a world where “we are all Keynesians,” Rawls saw no need to mention employment as a fundamental requirement of a well-ordered society, but ironically, the Neoclassical Synthesis started to come apart in economics just as A Theory of Justice appeared. New times, however, call for new models, in theories of justice as well as in economics.

While there is much more to be said here, I present my proposal as a little exercise in reflective equilibrium. Rawls noted that a third standpoint in political philosophy, in addition to the rational autonomy of the original position and the full autonomy of citizens in a well-ordered society, is the perspective of you and me. If we see full employment as fundamental to a just society, it would seem that an adequate theory of justice would model full employment as just, but some may not share this view and so a more detailed argument is required. But since no prominent political philosopher except Marx has addressed the employment problem that seems to plague all labor market societies, this may serve for some to begin to open the door a bit.

Larry Udell is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. He received his PhD from Ohio State University with specializations in social and political philosophy, philosophy of economics, philosophy of social sciences, and philosophy of law.  Among his published works and edited volumes is Ten Philosophies that Shook the World: An Economical Introduction to Philosophy, a reader meant to serve as an introduction to the field of philosophy.


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