On the Competition for Recognition Part IXA International Ethics & the American Left – John Rawls

Max Boot, a Washington Post columnist, wrote, “Now that I’ve left the Republican Party, I am often asked why I simply haven’t become a Democrat. In part it’s because I don’t agree with the progressive wing of the party: Some of them are as protectionist, isolationist and fiscally irresponsible as President Trump. But it’s also because, after having spent my entire adult life in one ideological bubble, I don’t want to join another. I refuse to make excuses for Trump — and I don’t want to be tempted to make excuses for a future Democratic president, either, as so many did for Bill Clinton after his sexual misconduct.”

Ignore for the moment the contradiction – Bill Clinton’s sexual peccadilloes had nothing to do with ideology. Boot charged a part of the left in America with being protectionist, isolationist and fiscally irresponsible. Protectionist – a few perhaps, but the left overwhelmingly consists of free traders. The protectionist union members have largely shifted to Trump’s party. Isolationist? Hardly. A cautious approach to overseas intervention combined with a militant approach to humanitarian intervention is more like it. Hardly isolationist at all. And fiscally irresponsible? A very partial truth, more in understanding than in performance. The Democrats have not overseen massive cuts in taxes while running up the international debt enormously. More often they behave like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who confused $21 trillion in tracking problems in the Pentagon budget over 17 years with actual waste that could be used to cover the cost of expanding Medicaid estimated at $32 trillion, but over 10 not 17 years. In any case, the $21 trillion is not a record of waste but of inadequate accounting. Total defence spending over seventeen years, 1998-2015, was only $9 trillion.

Yet an anti-ideological position is very understandable. But the backdrop of the Republican Party is a marriage of economic ideology and cultural nativism. Left liberals, whether largely members of one party as in the U.S. or divided among several parties, as in Canada, have purportedly been parties of interests rather than ideologies. But that has been their problem. The parties of the left supported globalism, the same doctrine of the economic ideological conservatives, but, in part, betrayed the interests of industrial workers who saw their numbers shrivel as competition from industrialization in states working their way into a modern economy attracted companies and industries. At the same time, taxes for companies and wealthy individuals also declined in the competition to have these individuals and companies locate in one’s urban area, in a state or province, and in a country. The tax burden shifted from income to expenditures, largely through sales taxes.

The most obvious expressions of this tension between globalization – which demands in ethical terms that we rapidly decrease the use of fossil fuels to save the planet from the effects of climate change – and the interests of the average working class, are the current demonstrations and riots in France. Macron’s carbon tax proposals disproportionately affect working people who live in exurbia and travel by vehicle long distances to work. They are not employed in the centre of large cities served by subways. And when they are, they have to commute relatively long distances. Alternatively, they need vehicles and pickups to carry their tools.

New forms of consumption taxes – whether sales or carbon taxes – end up being borne disproportionately by the working middle class in a polity that supposedly uses taxation to rectify imbalances in power and privilege in a modern political economy. The result – a revolt against globalism, whether the globalism of manufacturing and trade, the globalism of population movements of immigrants and refugees, the globalism of the environmentalists or the ethical globalism of the do-gooders of this world.

The liberal left in the U.S. is still overwhelmingly dominated by a coalition of centrists, liberals and progressives rather than the far left. Can the liberal left share a set of values, even if not an ideology, that can build on the globalized world created and left as our inheritance by the developers of the modern international system. Those creators may have come came from the left, as in the case of those committed to the development of international rights, legal and political institutions, or from the right as in the case of the role of the last conservative president in that tradition who lies in state in Texas today, George H. W. Bush.

In my intellectual education, four international ethicists stood out who tried to address this problem when it was still in an inchoate state – John Rawls, Richard Rorty, Michael Walzer and Michael Sandel – all committed to the primacy of the practical. I have excluded any consideration of Robert Nozick’s libertarianism that is used to inform the ethical right. I intend to examine each of these four in turn, unfortunately very briefly, in this blog and the next three that will follow, to assess whether there exists a coherent philosophy that can ground the left liberal position as Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper did for the economic right. The central theme is justice.

The philosophy of John Rawls can best be aligned with conservative or liberal centrism and was set forth in his writings during the seventies and eighties. Many would question his membership on the liberal left at all since he has most often been identified as a conservative. But he is an ethical conservative dealing with global ethics and its appropriate norms, a stance which informed, implicitly or explicitly, the positions of ethical politicians confronting the dilemmas of the modern world. In my exposition, rather than any critique of the theoretical flaws and inadequacies, I focus on only a few selected essays and works most relevant to my concerns:

TJ – 1971: A Theory of Justice

FG – 1975: “Fairness to Goodness”

KCE – 1975: “A Kantian Conception of Equality”

BLP – 1982: “The Basic Liberties and their Priority” Tanner Lectures

JFPM – 1985: “Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical”

IOC – 1987: “The Idea of an Overlapping Consensus”

PRIG – 1988: “The Priority of Right and Ideas of the Good”

DPOC – 1989: “The Domain of the Political and Overlapping Consensus”

I begin with the issue of justice said to inform the operations of our social institutions and the measure of their performance, the worst effects on the most socially disadvantaged.  Rawls, Rorty, Walzer and Sandel had all set aside any classical notion that we could define moral truth as an abstract reference point or ground ethics in a divinely given or inspired revelation but, instead, sought to forge an ethics of reasonableness allowing agents in society to work out differences in resolving problems. In constructing a well-ordered society, which of these theories can best appeal to and motivate the various sectors on the liberal left?

Rawls set forth one prime criterion that is at the root of the development of institutions protecting individual rights in the modern world – social institutions must not tread upon or compromise the freedom and integrity of individual agents in a society. On the other hand, Rawls was not initially a globalist since he contended that his “philosophical system” only applied to self-sufficient, self-contained and closed systems theoretically abstracted from other societies.

How is this practical when there are no self-sufficient and self-contained nation-states in the modern world system? Rawls answered that the system of rights developed in a single self-sufficient and closed nation state had then to be applied to that same nation-state when it opened itself up to the rest of the world as the U.S. did when it moved from isolationism to becoming the leader of the free world. How do we deal with refugees while protecting rights? How do we deal with poverty and disabilities and illnesses abroad while ensuring minimum standards for everyone at home?

Let me offer a concrete example. The Gates foundation in an effort to counter AIDS in Uganda, poured plenty of money into the Ugandan health system to counter the problem. The incidence of AIDS declined dramatically and treatment rose in both quantity and quality. However, there were unintended effects. Infant and pregnant women mortality rates increased sharply as health professionals shifted from other areas of medicine to AIDS treatment where the rewards were significantly larger. At the same time, as medical personnel in Uganda enhanced their expertise, they were lured abroad because of that expertise. The result: the problems of distribution of health services in a nation that already had a severe shortage of health workers suffered even more. In the effort to address one problem, problems created in other areas more than offset the gains in the response to AIDS. Women and infants had become the least advantaged so that the issue was no longer the distribution of benefits to them, but that the emerging system of distribution turned them into a group with even greater needs.

In trying to protect the rights of AIDS patients to access appropriate health care, the problem then is not simply what happens to the most disadvantaged, but that the group that is most disadvantaged not only changes, but the overall ability to provide health care declines. In the effort to address one problem, the costs are born by another side of society that is also weak as well as for society as a whole and its abilities to distribute health care fairly.  At the same time, the health care system of the U.S. improves as it can now import health care workers without investing in their basic education and training. Further, those imported health workers tend to work in hospitals and clinics serving the most disadvantaged in America. When health facilities are staffed disproportionately by new immigrants, the most disadvantaged locally become even more disadvantaged as their interests and needs are served by those least politically rooted and those least able to defend the dignity and rights of those domestic citizens who become politically further disadvantaged.

Thus, an ethics rooted in the protection of rights and redistribution internationally through voluntary donations easily subverts its own intentions by shifting the disadvantaged constituency abroad (from AIDS patients to pregnant women and infants) and diminishing the political presence of the disadvantaged domestically. Lacking an overall polity to govern the system of redistribution, it is almost impossible to envision how a more comprehensive approach might be adopted to address the problem.

Thus, building a system of justice based on protecting the rights of individuals while measuring efforts at redistribution by the effects on those most disadvantaged does not seem to work in practice. No amount of playing with the two basic ethical supports would seem sufficient to deal with the problem. The failure in comprehensiveness is not simply a problem of mindblindness and “motivated cognition” that tends to focus on practical resolutions that comport with one’s own ethical premises, for any repairs attempted to address the shortcomings have a propensity to exaggerate rather than alleviate the problem of just redistribution by creating new distortions elsewhere, enhancing existing distortions at other nodes in the overall “system.”

Nor can the blame be placed on individuals or specific groups for enhancing the plight of those most disadvantaged in the name of protecting rights universally. For the cause is not a specific accountable agent but a systemic fault characterized by anonymity and the reality that we seem to recognize the defects only after they have become pronounced.

What if we approach these problems of complexity in the same way literary scholars do by focusing on intertextuality, the focus on similar and related problems in related spheres (literary types) that both differ from and reflect one another? It does not help, not only because the problems are too complex, not only because the interweaving is so dense, but because the starting point of a self-sufficient and self-contained nation-state conflicts with the issue of global redistribution when there is no global regulatory authority to govern redistribution. A centralist pragmatic ethic rooted in humanitarianism through charity combined with the protection of rights pushes in the direction of increased globalism without attacking the problem of an absence of a global governing authority charged with both protecting rights and engaging in redistribution to help the most disadvantaged.


Next: Richard Rorty


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