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WEEK IN REVIEW DESK
Starting in the 1950's, Mr. Rawls set down principles for the postwar welfare state, providing intellectual spine to liberals seeking tough-minded defense of their instinct to take from the rich and give to the poor. Professor Rawls's goal was to prove that the case for redistribution of wealth flowed from rational discourse, not sloppy moralizing or ideological froth.
As President Bill Clinton said in awarding him a 1999 National Medal of Arts, ''Almost single-handedly John Rawls revived the disciplines of political and ethical philosophy with his argument that a society in which the most fortunate help the least fortunate is not only a moral society but a logical one.''
Yet many of the scholars, including economists, who embraced Professor Rawls's vision of a just society found flaws in the analysis. His writing won their hearts if not their heads.
Professor Rawls offered two principles for a just society, as outlined in his 1971 book, ''A Theory of Justice.'' First, each person should enjoy equally a full array of basic liberties. Second, public policy should raise as high as possible the social and economic well-being of society's worst-off individuals.
This second principle rules out mindless egalitarianism -- policies that, in the name of the poor, drive down living standards across the board. Rawlsian principles could, for example, embrace a conservative policy, say a cut in taxes on capital gains income, if it could be shown that the cut would add some amount to the incomes of the poor. Professor Rawls sought to show that the principle flowed from rational deduction rather than personal taste. To do that, he asked what social contract would emerge by consensus from a group of people not already blinded by accidents of birth and other arbitrary advantages and disadvantages.
So he imagined people gathered behind ''a veil of ignorance,'' unaware of whether they were rich or poor, talented or inept. What kind of society would they build? He argued that the rule everyone could agree on would be to maximize the well-being of the worst-off person -- partly out of fear that anyone could wind up at the bottom. But critics pointed out that rational people might not behave that way: rather than avert risk, people might instead gamble by calling for society to maximize the income of the richest. Gambling may seem unattractive, but it is not irrational.
Despite the critics, Professor Rawls's ideas have flowered. Thousands
of books and articles have injected his brand of liberalism into popular
discourse. He won, then, by losing.