A Broken Contract: Rawls and the Failure of Tax Reform


(Author’s note: My usage of the phrase “liberal democracy” in this piece refers to a  democracy that possesses multi-polar elections, separation of powers, and the guarantee of individual liberties. It is not a synonym for a left-leaning democracy.)

The latest Republican tax bill is a terrible bill, poorly constructed, rushed, and utterly open about its desire to harm those who suffer the most to give more to the top. For starters, tax cuts on the rich are usually bad economics, while they theoretically increase the amount of money available to be invested in the economy they usually fail in stimulating growth. Even when they succeed in doing so, said growth is almost always insufficient for tax cuts to pay for themselves or make them worthwhile. However, my focus is not going to be on how the tax plan is poor economic policy. Rather, today I shall be taking aim at the latest Republican tax plan for utterly obliterating the Rawlsian conception of justice and liberal democracy. For the uninitiated, John Rawls has been said to be the best defender of liberal democracy. He is credited with reinvigorating the social contract theory by presenting a model for an ideal liberal democracy, while attempting to resolve questions about the legitimate use of collective force. If Locke and Rousseau can be said to have created the liberal democracy, Rawls refined it to near perfection. Thus, the failure of the Republican tax plan to meet his principles is fundamentally damning to me.

Firstly, the Republican tax bill violates the maxmin reasoning of Rawlsian thought, in that it fundamentally fails to help the citizens that the Republicans ostensibly represent. Maxmin reasoning can be summarized as the concept that representatives of a liberal democracy should and will attempt to maximize the minimal number of primary goods the people they represent have. This means that a representative should seek to enrich the people they represent, but the Republican tax bill doesn’t help their base in the slightest, and in fact hurts them for the most part. Most of the country will see the amount of money in their pockets decrease instead of rise, with the exception of the richest Americans. In fact, it seems to be designed on reverse maxmin reasoning, doing the most harm possible to Democrats and non-constituents. The only way maxmin reasoning could have been employed would be if the lawmakers did not view the public as their constituents, but only corporate interests as such. Therefore, there are two possibilities, either maxmin reasoning is not being followed by the legislature, or representatives do not see themselves as representing their constituents but rather their donors. Either way, the structure of a representative democracy presupposes that legislatures will attempt to act in their constituents’ best interests, and if legislatures no longer act in this manner, than the very foundation of democracy in America is under siege.

Furthermore, I will allege that the Republican tax plan is unjust under the Rawlsian conception of justice as fairness. Now, let us define what Rawls means by “justice as fairness” as laid out in his titular 1985 essay, as well as in A Theory of Justice. First, Rawls posits that in a situation where we are placed behind a veil of ignorance, where the real world and all its varied complexities and craziness are left behind, only then can we come to a real understanding of how justice should function, away from racial, class, gender, or other biases. Second, he posits that this imaginary situation should give rise to two principles, that of equality and acceptable inequality. Rawls does not mean an equality of outcome, for accounting for such a thing is impossible, but rather an equality of opportunity, that no matter what, no person should have access to an opportunity based on class, race, gender, etc. that would be denied to another. Equally important is the principle of acceptable inequality, which means that economic and social (i.e. authoritative) inequality in a society is only acceptable in the circumstance that having said inequality is also beneficial to those who are not advantaged by it. Both of these principles are torn to shreds by the tax bill.

Equality of opportunity is something the Republicans purportedly support, as they endorse the view that those who are wealthy have earned it through hard work and intelligence, something only possible in a society with equality of opportunity. In reality, the tax bill specifically targets college students and grad students, making tuition waivers taxable income and making student loans harder to pay off, effectively eliminating college as a possibility for low-income students. Furthermore, it fails the acceptable inequality test by not only perpetuating an inequality, but one that purposefully hurts those that it does not benefit, by raising taxes in blue states, raising taxes on the poor, and eliminating deductions for the middle class. The result is to massively increase inequality, while providing a nonexistent benefit to the economy. I would argue that this is true of most tax cuts, but especially so in this particular case. It is the highest form of class war, where the poor and middle class are deprived of their earnings to give those who already possess massive sums of wealth. Thus, current Republican economic policy can be said to be fundamentally unjust under a Rawlsian framework, as it violates both components of justice as fairness, and therefore must be opposed and overturned.

The latest tax bill is merely a symptom, however, of deeper flaws within the American governmental system. A government that does not represent its citizens and perpetuates injustice cannot be said to truly be a democracy, and it is clear that the current government is neither responsive to popular will nor interested in the well being of the populace. This is not the fault of people, but institutions, and we can build better ones, ones that will live up to the lofty ideas of Locke, Rousseau, Kant, and Rawls. Rousseau said that it was the tendency of all forms of government to degenerate into autocracy, but I would like to think that that doesn’t have to be the case, that aristocracy can be made democracy once more, and that democracy can be solidified, as to never fall again into the tyranny that came before. Ultimately, it is up to us, the citizens of these United States, to reclaim our democratic traditions and breathe new life into American democracy, but how that can be done is the subject of another essay.