Rawls and the Open Economy

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Via Mark Thoma, Daniel Little offers a short but sweet account of how far contemporary America falls short of the Rawlsian ideal of a “property owning democracy.”

Consider immigration. Immigration exacerbates inequality among the native born, but makes most Americans better off, and of course makes immigrants better-off. Best possible policy response, according to me and according to Rawls, is to let immigrants come and do redistributive taxation. But what’s second-best? According to me, you let the immigrants in anyway. After all, most people benefit and the interests of the immigrants themselves are very relevant here—they’re much poorer than anyone in America. According to Rawls, however, for some reason the interests of Mexicans don’t count unless Mexico falls beneath some kind of threshold of humanitarian subsistence. That doesn’t make sense to me.

Of course I’m not the first person to disagree with Rawls on this point about the interests of foreigners and global aspects of international justice. But I think that the people who think about these things on a philosophical level are sometimes not paying attention to the interplay of foreign and domestic aspects of international policy. Or then think about the interplay of these concerns with intergenerational ones.

I think that if we look at the world as a whole over the past 30 years, we see a clear reduction in inequality of living standards thanks to economic growth in China and India and increased political liberty in Latin America and Eastern Europe. The big dark cloud is that we also see a frightening—and growing—risk of environmental disaster.