Category Archives: justice

Greek Tragedies

Before the weekend, the Monkey Cage featured an interesting article on the Greek debt crisis and Thucydides. In general, I’m not a fan of the way that Thucydides and the History of the Peloponnesian War is trotted out within debates on international relations. The basic problem is that the famous quote plucked from Thucydides’s Melian dialogue, ‘The powerful do what they can, whilst the weak suffer what they must’, is potentially vacuous. There’s a question of whether the quote is even an accurate translation of Thucydides:  apparently, Mary Beard claims that a closer translation would be ‘The powerful exact what they can, and the weak have to comply’, which removes some of the natural necessity of the quote and assigns greater responsibility to the powerful. But putting this to one side, the quotation is circular and tautological if being weak is defined as suffering what one must and powerful means doing whatever one can without restraint. As I’ve emphasised (belaboured?) in discussions with countless students, a lot of power-talk in international relations is vacuous in this regard. These sort of parlour tricks, wheeling out old Thucydides to make seemingly-profound but platitudinous statements, are what provides fairly unsophisticated versions of realism in international relations with their superficial aura of plausibility. To talk about power properly, it’s necessary to distinguish between resources/relationships and outcomes, which enables a much more productive debate about what sort of resources/social relations generate control over outcomes under what sort of conditions.

But the article by Neville Morley is quite a bit better than the usual fare, as it discusses the way in which responses of actors placed positions of strength and weakness differ from what rational choice theories would predict. Thus it seems that the structure of the situation of bargaining among unequals has an influence over the goals that actors pursue. Perhaps this is another case where actors are operating according to heuristics, general strategies that are effective in a range of similar social circumstances. Maybe in their wider social experiences actors are used to using a position of strength to push for maximum advantage and used to shifting to moral appeals and unreciprocated cooperation when they are at a disadvantage. As the evidence I’ve read on cross-cultural experiments with game theory seems to indicate, actors may bring their wider social experiences of competition and cooperation with them into the laboratory.

The article makes some fascinating points about Varoufakis’s own research on game theory and the strategies that he has pursued as Finance Minister. But as someone in the comments points out, Morley’s piece ignores the fact of Athen’s eventual defeat in the Peloponnesian War – Thucydides classic has been read as a tragedy in which the Athenians, who expressed the hubris of the overly mighty in their arrogant dismissal of the moral arguments of the Melians, were eventually visited by nemesis. On this reading, there are lessons for the powerful as well as the weak.

Free Market Fairness, Distributional Adequacy and Distributivism

There’s an interesting review of Tomasi’s Free Market Fairness by O’Neill and Williamson in the Boston Review. The thought struck me recently that there isn’t much in the way of centre-right political philosophy. Many political philosophers present a set of principles which are squarely centre left, accommodating the free market but underlining the need for the maximum possible level of equality compatible with economic efficiency. The usual foil for this brand of liberal egalitarian position is the sort of minarchist free-market libertarianism defended by Robert Nozick, according to which individuals have an absolute right over legitimately acquired property.

According to the review, it looks like Tomasi wants to defend a compromise position which starts from a basically Rawlsian position but accords special value to market exchange and property rights. But it’s difficult to make such a compromise work – the reviewers don’t seem to think that Tomasi manages it.

The basic problems are that Rawls’s position does not prohibit market exchange and, once we’ve acknowledged that property rights are not absolute and can be compromised for the sake of social justice and/or the provision of public goods, it seems difficult to think of reasons why we shouldn’t arrange institutions to benefit those who are least well-off. There’s not much space for centre-right political philosophers to work with here. The best argument against liberal egalitarian conclusions seems to be an empirical one about the levels of equality that are realistically compatible with economic efficiency. But that isn’t a critique of liberal egalitarian principles as such.

In the review, O’Neill and Williamson report that Tomasi addresses this challenge by proposing his own test of ‘distributional adequacy’ as an alternative to Rawlsian distributive equality (i.e. maximise the position of the least well-off). But I didn’t really understand the idea of “distributional adequacy”, which is defined as being the requirement that ‘each and all should benefit from political and economic arrangements; if all are better off, it is acceptable that some have much more than others’. Better off than what? What is the counterfactual for comparison? It sounds like it is the requirement for pareto-optimality, but pareto is dependent on a comparison with the status quo. So a change is only ‘distributionally adequate’ if the rich are no worse off than they are at present? Or is it some kind of ‘state of nature’ comparison between the present set-up and a life of banging rocks together? Neither are very satisfying. I feel like I’m missing something…

In any case, it seems like O’Neill and Williamson are suggesting that Tomasi’s own principles point towards something like distributivism, a variant of European Christian democracy according to which the problem with industrial democracy isn’t that we have too many capitalists, but too few and too big.

If I get the chance I might give Tomasi’s book a read. I’m interested in seeing where contemporary philosophers might take the arguments of Hayek, who seems to be under-recognised by political philosophers as one of the major conservative liberal thinkers of the last century. But I start from a position of scepticism; I think it’s pretty difficult to make a clear philosophical case for the sort of centre-right position favoured by Anglo-American conservative liberals.