chapter  6
36 Pages

The “Mirage” of Social Justice: Hayek Against (and For) Rawls

ByAndrew Lister

ABSTRACT: There is an odd proximity between Hayek, hero of the libertarian right, and Rawls, theorist of social justice, because, at the level of principle, Hayek was in some important respects a Rawlsian. Although Hayek said that the idea of social justice was nonsense, he argued against only a particular principle of social justice, one that Rawls too rejected, namely distribution according to individual merit. Any attempt to make reward and merit coincide, Hayek argued, would undermine the market’s price system, leaving us all poorer and less free. Like Rawls, Hayek held that we should assess social institutions from behind a veil of ignorance, and he thought that doing so pushed us toward egalitarianism. Most of the distance between Hayek and Rawls at the level of policy stems from Hayek’s optimism about the operation of markets, his equivocation about the meaning of central concepts, and his appeal to under-argued slippery slopes. Hayek wavered, however, between claiming that private property and markets benefit everyone, compared to the feasible alternatives, and the principle that they maximize the opportunities of a randomly selected member of society, i.e., aggregate opportunity. Contemporary Hayekians claim that capitalism raises the position of the worst off in the long run, in future generations, whereas Rawlsians insist that inequalities between social positions should benefit the worst off now.