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Equitable distribution in Rawls' <em>Law of Peoples</em>

In The Law of Peoples Rawls states that

a political conception of right and justice that applies to the principles and norms of international law and practice. Rawls 1999, p. 3

Yet, despite the ideal principle that the above quotation seems to uphold, Rawls contends that a well-ordered society has no moral or political obligation to assist a failing society even if that society is liberal or decent. Here, I would like to show that a well-ordered society has a duty to assist a failing society even if that failing society is liberal or decent. First, I will review Rawls's argument for the duty of assistance in The Law of Peoples ("LP"). Then I will argue that liberal

peoples have a moral obligation to assist any nonliberal peoples. In order for my argument to work, I will need to address Rawls' concern that nothing short of political control over other societies would be required for liberal societies to assist nonliberal societies. Finally, what this paper will reveal is that Rawls's law of peoples should require liberal peoples to assist decent peoples, in spite of his conclusion to the contrary.


In LP, Rawls responds to criticisms of his perceived neglect of international justice in his earlier work, A Theory of

Justice. Rawls assumes that the world is composed of a less than perfect international order consisting of both liberal and nonliberal governments. The primary motivating question of LP is: should liberal peoples tolerate nonliberal societies, and, if they must tolerate such illiberal societies, how far should that toleration extend? Rawls contends that it is unreasonable for free and equal peoples to refuse to cooperate with decent nonliberal peoples, but he argues that liberal peoples do not have a general duty to assist decent nonliberal peoples.


Rawls argues that a society of peoples does not have a general duty to equally support the disadvantaged everywhere for two reasons. First, a society of peoples has a moral entitlement to all that they produce by their labor or acquire by voluntary gift or exchange. Second, a self-sufficient peoples has a general duty to support disadvantaged peoples so they may become self-sufficient, but it has a special duty to its own people, especially to the disadvantaged members of its own society.


An egalitarian distributive principle, according to Rawls, would unfairly burden societies which have been responsible in the conduct of their economic affairs and benefit those which have not. Rawls uses a thought experiment to show that an egalitarian principle is unjust. Suppose that there are two liberal or decent societies, A and B, at the same level of wealth and of similar size. Society A chooses to industrialise and to increase the rate of saving, while society B decides not to industrialise and not to save. After a few decades, A is twice as wealthy as B. Rawls believes that an egalitarian

distributive principle would require a flow of resources from A to B, a consequence he thinks is unacceptable (LP, p. 117-119).


Society A should not have to assist society B since the two societies are just or decent. If they are just or decent, then both societies have the appropriate political culture to be treated as responsible agents and to be held accountable for

their decisions. Consequently, A owes nothing to B.


I have a problem with the consequence of Rawls's view that A owes nothing to B. First, B's economic problems are the result of B's incompetent political culture. Second, A could have played a role in B's disadvantaged situation. For these reasons, A owes B financial compensation and other forms of assistance.


Considering the increase of A's wealth over the course of a few decades, it appears that there is something wrong with

B's political culture. I draw this conclusion from the fact that B's decision not to industrialize and not to save has

resulted in B's disadvantaged predicament. Given that Rawls's thinks liberal societies have a duty to assist those

societies with a troublesome political culture, society A has a duty to assist society B. If my view is correct, then

society A not only has a duty to financially assist B but also A has a duty to advise B for how they should improve their political culture.


Rawls outlines three guidelines for the duty of assistance. In Rawls's second guideline for thinking about how to carry out the duty of assistance, he states:

the political culture... is all-important... I believe the causes of the wealth of a people and the forms it takes lie in their political culture and in the religious, philosophical, and moral traditions that support the basic structure of their political and social institutions, as well as in the industriousness and cooperative talents of its members, all supported by their political virtues. (LP, p. 108)

According to Rawls, the cause of a society's financial situation is the society's political culture. Members of the society

share the responsibility of the wealth of a peoples. But it is the political culture that supports the basic structure of political and social institutions, and political culture most directly affects the financial well-being of the members of a society. If a society's political culture is strong, then the fiscal situation of that society will be strong too.


From Rawls's discussion, it is hard to conclude what an acceptable political culture is (LP, pp. 108-111). A weak political

culture implies that policies to remedy the effects of economic shortfalls may not have been instituted. A failure to institute policies that will assist a society's citizens may cause unnecessary financial and social hardships. If the political culture has failed to prevent economic hard times for its people, then that political culture has little concern for the welfare of its citizens. Economic hard times include events like depressions, a long period of financial and industrial decline, or economic recessions, a temporary decline in economic activity or prosperity. Depressions are more devastating because they could lead to the people of a society starving, becoming homeless, and other life-threatening

problems. During a depression, the person's income usually reduces because of losing a job. If a person experiences a sharp reduction in income, then that person may not have access to adequate nutrition for himself or his family. Depressions, therefore, put the people of a society at greater risk of death and disease. This seems to show that that society has "a lack of concern for human rights" (LP, p. 109).


If society B has chosen not to save money for future generations and has chosen not to industrialize, then this seems to

indicate a flaw in B's political culture. Choosing not to industrialize is not bad in itself; however, if other societies

around B choose to industrialize, then these other societies have a distinct economic advantage over B. These societies will trade products, share natural resources, and share intellectual property with one another. B's decision may be

a case where the leading members of society thought, "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." Since B was doing well in comparison with A at the earlier time, B could have thought that it need not change anything in order to remain on an equal plane with A. This sort of reasoning is fallacious and philosophically unsound. Since Rawls thinks that the philosophical is linked with the political culture, this reasoning shows that the political culture is flawed.


Instead of arguing that B's flawed political culture is reason for A to assist B, it could be argued that A's choice has placed society B in a disadvantageous political and economic position. It is not the case that B's decision to refrain from industrializing and from saving has caused all of society B's economic hardship. A's choice has hurt B's chances of succeeding. Thus, it seems reasonable to think that we should not hold society B accountable, and A owes something to B.


A's choice has inadvertently affected the economic situation in B's society. A is morally entitled to all that they produce by their labor or acquire by voluntary gift or exchange. If A's choice has altered the wealth of society B, then it is only fair that A contribute to assisting society B. If A openly trades with other societies who are equally well-off, then A's society will benefit from the open trade agreements. The open trade agreements will harm society B because they do not have the available resources to engage in such activity. Members of B's society would suffer unnecessary hardships. Society A's choice may lead to unpalatable economic consequences for B's population.


B is flawed not because of its decision not to industrialize or not to save but A's exploitative choice. If this is correct, then it seems only fair that A has a duty to assist B by providing financial support as well as advice for improving B's political culture.


There is another reason to think that A has a duty to assist B. B's failure to save for future generations seems to be a failure of political culture if Rawls's just savings principle is a duty of justice. In A Theory of Justice, Rawls writes,

Saving is demanded as a condition of bringing about the full realization of just institutions and the equal liberties. (1999, p. 257)

If a society fails to save for future generations, then that society has failed to realize a duty of justice. The problem in society B is a problem of political culture. B has failed to "lay the foundation for a just basic structure of society" (LP, p. 118). Since A, a liberal society, has a duty to assist nonliberal societies with a faulty political culture, it seems to follow that A has the duty to assist B, even if B is a liberal or decent society.


I have tried to argue that A has a duty to assist B since B's failure to industrialize and save for future generations seems to expose a deeper problem of B's political culture. Also,A's choice to industrialise and to save may have affected B's financial status, so A owes something to B. Rawls may insist that this duty would require nothing short of A's political control over society B.


Assisting B to become self-sufficient will require A to exercise some control over B's social and political institutions. For example, A may have to rebuild B's internal communication infrastructure to provide a better environment for sharing information between B's political institutions. If A has to control some of B's social and political institutions, then there must be a point in time where A hands over control to B. A cannot remain in control forever because that would be unjust. There will need to be a definite time horizon for A's withdrawal from B. Given that there is such a time horizon, there is nothing wrong with A's control over B.


Rawls asks us to submit that society B is a liberal, or at the least a decent, society. What I have tried to show is that

B's political culture is faulty. If a society's political culture causes a problem and, as Rawls believes, "the crucial element in how a country fares is its political culture" (LP, p. 117), then the well-off society owes the less well-off something. Therefore, A does owe some assistance, financial or otherwise, to B.

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