The approach to freedom I think I like best was proposed by the American philosopher John Rawls, who died in 2002. I hedge because I haven’t read much of his work. I find it dense to the point of impenetrability, so I’m relying on interpretations that fall within my scope of understanding, such as this comic strip. And I may be misunderstanding even those. If so, my apologies.
Rawls agreed that each of us should have as much freedom as possible without infringing on the freedom of others. But he departed from libertarianism by adding a moral component, and he went beyond the Four Freedoms by being more comprehensive.
Here’s the moral component: Rawls believed that, just as in our Pledge of Allegiance, freedom and justice go together — and are for all. Therefore economic freedom may be limited so the most disadvantaged members of society aren’t left behind.
For Rawls, the freest society is one in which its members:
- Have virtually unrestricted rights of thought, conscience, speech, association, etc.;
- Enjoy equal access to opportunities; and
- Permit unequal liberties only if they are most beneficial to the society’s least-advantaged members.
Rawls argued that the ideal social contract is one in which people do not know ahead of time what their status will be. If they don’t know whether they’ll be rich or poor, well or sick, male or female, pale- or dark-skinned, they’ll be more likely to agree that the bottom of the ladder shouldn’t be too low or the top rung too high.
But that’s too theoretical. By high school, most of us have a sense of where we stand on the ladder. This is why a friend of mine who majored in philosophy hates philosophy: when you most need practical advice, it’s useless.
Fortunately, we have a more workable model close at hand.
The Founding Fathers recognized that political power is ineradicable, and that concentrated power is the greatest danger to a republic. For them, the best hope of thwarting tyranny was to spread political power broadly. So they created a (way too limited) democratic process and the government checks and balances we have come to know so well.
Why not apply that same principle to economic power? Right now there are no checks and balances on wealth. Why not agree that on the low side, no one should ever go hungry, homeless, or cold, and on the high side, no one should have more than $100 million?
I know: how horribly unjust to the handful of people with more. But from my perspective, $100 million ought to be more than enough to incentivize the materially ambitious and allow them to indulge themselves and their families. Beyond that amount, money is just a tool for imposing your will on others— i.e. power.
We can give Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and the Koch Brothers a chance to distribute their excess billions to family, friends, and associates (increasing corporate democracy in the process). If they don’t, the government can impose a 100% tax on individual wealth above $100 million and use the windfall to reduce stress on the planet and the poor: clean air, clean water, nutritious food, shelter, warmth, health care, education.
I admit there would be tons of problems implementing the idea. For instance, the plutocrats would almost certainly try to shelter their fortunes in other countries. But I’m not one to make the perfect the enemy of the good — especially since no one need die for this revolution, and success would give so many more people a chance to live a decent life. My hope is that sometime soon, people who understand economics better than me will figure out how to make an idea like this work. Elizabeth Warren, got any time on your hands?