Rawls and full employment


Larry Udall has a short piece up at the APA blog in which he suggests a “friendly amendment” to John Rawls’s theory of justice as fairness. Although Rawls tended to be deliberately vague about the institutional arrangements and policies that would satisfy his favoured principles of distributive justice, Udall points out that Rawls was a lifelong supporter of the goal of full employment and what is now often referred to as a job guarantee (i.e. government as employer of last resort), with approving references to such policies appearing in lectures and published works at every stage of his career from A Theory of Justice onward. Udall’s complaint is that Rawls’s theory fails to establish a job guarantee as a fundamental requirement of justice. Appealing to the reader’s conviction that such a guarantee is required by justice, Udall concludes that Rawls’s theory must be missing something, but the problem is easily solved by adding employment to the list of social primary goods whose distribution the principles of justice are meant to regulate.

I believe Udall is mistaken on both points; it is not plausible that employment is a primary good, but justice as fairness generates a commitment to guaranteed access to employment without any amendment to the list of primary goods.

In Rawlsian jargon, primary goods are things that “every rational [person] is presumed to want.” Social primary goods, the distribuenda of justice as fairness, are the subset of primary goods that are produced and regulated by a society-wide system of cooperation; Rawls’s canonical list includes rights, liberties, opportunities, income and wealth, and the social bases of self-respect. In a free society – the kind of society to which the principles of justice as fairness are supposed to be applied – people will have all sorts of different goals and plans for their lives. But no matter what their goals and plans happen to be, everyone needs a share of social primary goods to pursue them. For this reason, primary goods are sometimes described as the all-purpose means for a person to make effective use of their rights and liberties, or as the things a person would want regardless of what else they want.

Given this definition, we can perform a simple test to check whether something counts as a primary good. If employment is a primary good, that means employment is something that every rational person wants. If we can conceive of a rational person whose plans for life don’t require employment for their fulfillment, employment is not a primary good.

Conceiving of such a person doesn’t take a lot of imagination. Many people find fulfillment in working as full-time dependant caregivers and household managers outside the labour market. Clearly these people are playing a role in the cooperative venture of society – an indispensable role, in fact – and the suggestion that a person would be irrational to pursue and find fulfillment in this kind of work would be both manifestly untrue and grossly insulting. Being employed is not just unnecessary to pursue the goal of becoming a full-time dependant caregiver, it is incompatible with that goal. It follows that employment is not a primary good.

If employment is not a primary good and there is no principle of justice that specifies a requirement for the institutions of the basic structure to guarantee employment, support for Udall’s (and Rawls’s) conviction that a just society will guarantee full employment must either be found in the canonical list of social primary goods or as a consequence of the two canonical principles of justice as fairness. Udall points out that Rawls’s remarks on full employment might be taken to imply that a job guarantee would fall under the social bases of self-respect, but rejects the inference on the grounds that the social bases of self-respect are too weak a foundation for a right as important as guaranteed employment. Although I find this part of Udall’s argument very misguided, I will set the issue aside for the time being. Instead, let’s take a look at Rawls’s two principles of justice.

Straight from the horse’s mouth, here’s Rawls’s two principles as they appear on page 266 of the revised edition or page 302 of the original edition:

2princThe second principle establishes a baseline of strict equality in shares of social primary goods. Deviations from strict equality are permitted only if such deviations increase the absolute size of the least advantaged group’s share. This aspect of the second principle is known as the difference principle. The other aspect of the second principle, the principle of fair equality of opportunity, places a further constraint on deviations from strict equality in shares of social primary goods even when such deviations would make the least advantaged better off.

There is some reason to think that the difference principle generates a requirement for guaranteed access to employment as a matter of basic justice. Creating opportunities and incentives for the unemployed to find work will increase the total quantity of social primary goods, thereby increasing the absolute size of the least advantaged group’s share through a rearrangement of social and economic inequalities, just as the difference principle dictates. Udall might object that this is too contingent a basis for guaranteed employment, and it seems obviously unjust – not to mention deeply at odds with the spirit of justice as fairness – for a person to be denied real opportunities for employment on the grounds that giving them a job isn’t unnecessary to maximize the distributive shares of the least advantaged.

Fortunately, the principle of fair equality of opportunity can provide a more secure foundation for a job guarantee. Long-term unemployment damages one’s prospects for attaining different offices and positions to which relatively larger distributive shares are attached and inevitably leads to a lower overall lifetime share of social primary goods. While the second principle of justice permits and regulates certain deviations from strict equality, the requirement of fair equality of opportunity prohibits any deviation from strict equality of opportunity. Because long-term unemployment creates inequality of opportunity, justice requires that the basic structure of society be arranged so that no one suffers involuntary long-term unemployment. No amendment to the list of primary goods  or the principles of justice is needed; Rawls’s original principles already explain why a just society would guarantee a job to anyone able and willing to work.

Supplementary Links

“Welfare, Work Requirements, and Dependant-Care” by Elizabeth Anderson

John Rawls at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Original Position at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

4 thoughts on “Rawls and full employment

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  3. From the viewpoint of supply and demand it would sound odd that the state or any other agent “created” jobs for those who need them. There are jobs as long there is demand for such services. Jobs are not to be valued as ends in themselves so they are not primary goods. They are purely means for money which is used to sustain basic needs. If it is perverse to talk about creating jobs, maybe Rawls’s theory is more coherent with the idea of equal opportunity to basic level of welfare. So, the contractors would choose unemployment benefits, something Rawls did not choose in terms of his “ideal theory”, which presupposes full employment.


    • “Jobs are not to be valued as ends in themselves so they are not primary goods.”

      This inference is faulty, because neither Rawls nor his hypothetical contractors conceive of the social primary goods as valuable for their own sake. I would also disagree that a job is necessarily only a means of making money. For many, having a job (in some cases any job, and in other cases a particular job or kind of job) is an important part of pursuing their purpose in the world. So the contractors have good reason to be concerned about the distribution of opportunity and not only income and wealth.


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