What is “Fairness”?

[I’m curious to know your answer, so please vote in the poll at the bottom of the post.]

Prof. Peter Boettke (George Mason University)

While listening to a podcast on the idea of a free society this morning, I was struck by the different ways people use the word “fairness.” The speaker, Peter Boettke, is a well known professor of economics at George Mason University. He was recently profiled in the Wall Street Journal as the “standard bearer” of a revival of Austrian economics, although many in Austrian circles think others are more deserving of this appellation.

During his presentation, Boettke said that a free society establishes a set of firm rules by which everyone must play and then allows people to work out their own “destinies,” or whatever you want to call it. This, according to Boettke, is justice. The statement that struck me was his assertion that “justice is about fairness; it’s not about results.”

The reason I really perked up my ears at that point is because for the last year I’ve been having an on-again, off-again debate with my old college friend Vic McCracken about the comparative merits and demerits of the conceptions of justice outlined by Murray Rothbard and John Rawls. Rawls’s well known formulation, “Justice as Fairness,” states in contradiction to Boettke that a just system is precisely one in which outcomes are equal. So to Rawls, justice is fairness, which is about outcomes! (If you know Rawls’s work, you see I’m simplifying his model somewhat, but I’m trying to keep it basic.)

I’d be surprised if Boettke were unfamiliar with Rawls’s construct, which is probably the most influential one of the last fifty years among American elites, so I wonder if he was consciously contradicting Rawls in his speech.

Time for you to weigh in!

About Dr. J

I am Professor of Humanities at Faulkner University, where I chair the Department of Humanities and direct online M.A. and Ph.D. programs based on the Great Books of Western Civilization. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy and a member of the faculty at Liberty Classroom.
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13 Responses to What is “Fairness”?

  1. Peter Boettke says:

    My talk was about Jim Buchanan and his interpretation of the questions of justice in the rules. The allusion to “justice as fairness” was a direct reference to Rawls, but more to his earlier presentation of his position that was read and appreciated by both Buchanan and Hayek (e.g., see their interview at the UFM website about 1/3rd in where they talk about this). And remember there are two principles of justice in Rawls, the first is about structure and procedure, the second is about results. Or at least that is one way to put it.

    But thank you for listening to my talk — I had no idea it was up online. Now that you linked to it I guess I realized that they were recording at the time, etc. I have to realize that in this day and age everything gets recorded and is made available, so you need to perfect the precision of statements unless you want to be misunderstood by audiences that are divorced from the context of your talk.


    • Dr. J says:

      The podcast I heard was not the complete lecture, just a twelve-minute excerpt. Apparently Cato frequently does that for (or to) their guest speakers. The Rawls context was not a part of the uploaded excerpt, so it must have been in an earlier portion. Thanks for clarifying your statement!

  2. Vic McCracken says:

    Jason, Rawls never says that a just system is one in which outcomes are equal (in fact, he explicitly rejects the idea that strictly egalitarian distribution is a requirement of justice–you’ll see his argument for the merits of unequal distribution on pages 150-151 of Theory). He does believe that we must protect the equal worth of liberty, and the distributive policies that can be justified in Rawlsian liberalism strive to protect this equal worth, for example by making certain that all citizens have access to good schools, adequate opportunities to pursue and/or revise their reasonable conceptions of the good, etc. You are correct that for Rawls the outcomes of historically-determined distribution are consequential to justice, something that libertarians like Nozick fault him for, but it’s simply inaccurate to say that Rawlsian liberalism calls for equal distribution. Rawlian liberalism allows for unequal distribution. The key question is whether or not inequality is to the greatest benefit of the least well off.

    • Dr. J says:

      That’s why I said I was simplifying Rawls’s position, because he does allow for unequal distribution in his difference principle. The point of the post was to call attention to the “process vs. results” difference in the different conceptions of justice.

      • Vic McCracken says:

        Yes, but my point is that saying that Rawls calls for equal distribution does not simplify his position; it distorts it.

        • Dr. J says:

          Vic, if you want to press the point, I’ll concede it. I had a suspicion you’d come after me when I initially made the post! As I said above, it doesn’t affect my main point.

        • Vic McCracken says:

          I think a better way of stating the point of Rawls’s theory is that for Rawls justice requires that we protect the equal worth of liberty by attending to involuntary factors that threaten the opportunities of individuals to pursue their respective visions of the good. This captures the point more fairly, but it also doesn’t make for as good a sound bite as saying that “Rawls wants everybody to have an equal amount of everything.” It also points more precisely to the relevant issue dividing libertarians and Rawlsian liberals–whether economic inequality poses real threats to individual liberty.

  3. Vic McCracken says:

    BTW, you’ll note that I voted “neither,” good Rawlsian that I am 😉

  4. Vic McCracken says:

    I’ll definitely listen to Dr. Boettke’s entire lecture when it is made available. I’ve developed more appreciation for the Austrian school of economics because of my interactions with Jason and Russ Roberts’s excellent podcast, though I often feel that libertarians confuse efficiency and justice, another observation I’ve gleaned from Rawls. From my perspective libertarian visions of justice fare poorly in addressing the role of the natural lottery in the distribution of primary goods (e.g. the fact that our life prospects are determined at least in part by involuntary circumstances–families of origin, natural intelligence, etc.). Libertarian justice seems well in the idealized world in which distributions arise purely as a result of voluntary choice, but I doubt that that this is the world such as it is. Very few of us can claim that what we have we have attained solely through our own labor, a fact I’m always reminded of when I see Paris Hilton’s face emblazoned on the front covers of supermarket tabloids. In the end libertarians and Rawlsian liberals agree that a just society must protect individual liberty. Rawlsians like myself believe that individual liberty is threatened when inequalities impede the opportunities for some to pursue their respective visions of the good. Libertarians are more optimistic (or not? Correct me if I’m wrong!) about the prospects of less-well-off individuals in a society riven with economic inequality. I also speculate that Rawlsian liberals and libertarians have different perspectives on just how prominent involuntary circumstance is in determining the prospects of individuals. Of course some libertarians will make the case that a free market does a much better job of ensuring opportunities for the least well off. If this can be empirically demonstrated than libertarianism and Rawlsian justice would converge.

    BTW, I grew up in Western PA, not far from Grove City, where Professor Boettke used to teach. I have many friends who went to Grove City. Good school!

  5. Vic McCracken says:

    BTW, Jason, when you find the link to the UFM website to the Hayek/Buchanan discussion of Rawls, would you mind posting it?

  6. Preston says:

    I vote neither, because I consider fairness to be an artificial construct of a self-centered society. I somehow suspect that the idea of fairness originated about the same time as the idea of boredom, as opposed to acedia, but not sure. Or perhaps I could define fairness as the feeble human echo of the divine quality that is justice.

  7. Peter Boettke says:


    I attended GCC as a student, I didn’t teach there. I loved the school and love it as an alum — in many ways I love everything about it.

    I encourage you to look at the Buchanan interview with Hayek from 1978 and especially the part that discusses (too briefly) Rawls’s system. There is a very big history to be written on Rawls and his relationship to economics and rational choice theory from the 1950s to the Theory of Justice.

    As I said, my point was focusing on the maximum equal liberty propositions and the role that the veil of ignorance can play in rule formation, and not so much the difference principle.


    • Vic McCracken says:

      Thanks for your observations, Peter. I am an ethicist, not an economist, so I always appreciate the insights that I can glean from people in your guild. The history that you cite is not one I’m in a position to write 😉 My sense is that the rational choice premises that inform the original position thought experiment serve a rhetorical role for Rawls. Rawls wants to begin with a relatively non-controversial premises (e.g. that individuals in the OP are motivated by rational self interest) so as to not build an overly controversial theory of human nature into his experiment. This allows him to build some common ground with utilitarians, the principle opponents Rawls is trying to persuade in Theory. His point is that rational, self-interested individuals (i.e. those individuals who utilitarians themselves presume in their own respective accounts of justice) choosing behind a veil of ignorance would not choose utilitarian principles of justice.

      Enjoying the conversation. Peter, if you’re friends with Russ Roberts I hope that you’ll tell him how much I appreciate his work. I found his interview of Diane Ravitch a year or two ago really outstanding, and I also enjoyed his interview with Chris Hitchens on Orwell. BTW, what years were you at Grove City?

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