Markets, desert, and reciprocity

Politics, Philosophy and Economics 16 (1):47-69 (2017)
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This article traces John Rawls’s debt to Frank Knight’s critique of the ‘just deserts’ rationale for laissez-faire in order to defend justice as fairness against some prominent contemporary criticisms, but also to argue that desert can find a place within a Rawlsian theory of justice when desert is grounded in reciprocity. The first lesson Rawls took from Knight was that inheritance of talent and wealth are on a moral par. Knight highlighted the inconsistency of objecting to the inheritance of wealth while taking for granted the legitimacy of unequal reward based on differential productive capacity. Rawls agreed that there was an inconsistency, but claimed that it should be resolved by rejecting both kinds of inequality, except to the extent they benefitted the worst off. The second lesson Rawls learned from Knight was that the size of one’s marginal product depends on supply and demand, which depend on institutional decisions that cannot themselves be made on the basis of the principle of rewarding marginal productivity. The article claims that this argument about background justice overstates its conclusion, because the dependence of contribution on institutional setup is not total. Proposals for an unconditional basic income may therefore have a strike against them, as far as a reciprocity-based conception of desert is concerned. If we follow Knight’s analysis of the competitive system, however, so too does the alternative of leaving determination of income up to the market.



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Andrew Lister
Queen's University

References found in this work

A Theory of Justice: Revised Edition.John Rawls - 1999 - Harvard University Press.
Anarchy, State, and Utopia.Robert Nozick - 1974 - New York: Basic Books.
Justice as fairness: a restatement.John Rawls (ed.) - 2001 - Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

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