Egalitarianism in a Globalized World

A Paul Krugman post gives me an excellent excuse to make a point I’ve been sitting on since Saturday. He says his approach is broadly Rawlsian in nature:

My vision of economic morality is more or less Rawlsian: we should try to create the society each of us would want if we didn’t know in advance who we’d be. And I believe that this vision leads, in practice, to something like the kind of society Western democracies have constructed since World War II — societies in which the hard-working, talented and/or lucky can get rich, but in which some of their wealth is taxed away to pay for a social safety net, because you could have been one of those who strikes out.

The further away I get from TM Scanlon’s Philosophy 178 course on Equality and Democracy the more I worry that some of Rawls’ modeling assumptions is a bigger deal than is usually made clear in these kind of undergraduate classes. Rawls basically assumes a closed economy with no trade, no immigration, and no emigration. He’s hardly the first person in the universe to do this, and indeed you see a lot of closed economy models in economics since for some circumstances it’s often approximately true and it makes the math easier. In both the philosophical and economic realms, people are of course well aware that this isn’t true. But while Rawls has a separate book on international issues and there’s a very robust controversy as to whether his take gives short slight to rich countries’ obligations to poor ones, this whole line of thought is rarely read back into the basic presentation of Rawls’ views.

And in the 1970s this was probably right. After all, you can only squeeze so much into one semester. But the mixed economy arose in a kind of odd time when a huge swathe of the world wasn’t really interested in playing host to low-wage export-oriented manufacturing and the West’s relationship to those countries (Japan, Korea, Taiwan) there were interested in doing so was dominated by considerations of Cold War strategy. The fall of Communism in Europe, the opening of China, the demise of the “license raj” in India, etc. are all good things for the world. But they’re quite problematic in terms of the theory and practice of egalitarian liberalism in the rich world in a way that I think isn’t always appreciated. It’s of course quite possible that teaching practice has changed a lot in the past 10 years, but in terms of my own undergraduate education I think the issues in this neighborhood were under-emphasized compared to what seems important to me in today’s debates.