Rawls suggests that after fixing the justice principles, the constitution needs to be decided upon and it should be so done that the principles of justice are subsumed into the principles of liberty. After the establishment of the constitution legislation in parliament should be such that it targets the long-term social and economic goals. The social and economic policies should be aimed at maximising the long-term expectations of the least advantaged under conditions of fair equality and opportunity. Hence if the laws are such that they favour the privileged but no benefit accrues to the least advantaged as a consequence, to the maximum extent, then those laws have to be regarded as unjust.
Rawls’ theory has faced criticism from thinkers along the following lines mainly:
- Brian Barry has argued that (i) it is difficult to identify the least advantaged individuals and groups in any society, (ii) what is included in the connotation of self-respect by Rawl is not clear, and (iii) the principles of constitutional engineering enunciated by Rawl are too fragile to make an impact.
- Norman P. Barry has argued the theory of Rawl is just a re-statement of the liberal-capitalist principle and according to him it seems, ‘the pleasure of the better off, however great, can not compensate for the pains of the worst off’.
- The positive liberal thinker MacPherson has argued, Rawl assumes that a capitalist society will always be badly class divided and that inequality of income will always be necessary in such a society as an incentive to efficient production and hence in a welfare state transfer payments must always be limited by design to an amount that leaves one class better off than another. But this class inequality can in free market capitalist system lead to an inequality of power as well as income and as a consequence allow one class to dominate over the other.
The American libertarians have questioned the idea of distributing both talents and natural assets on the basis and for satisfying the principles of social justice.
Rawls theory, as far as distributive justice is concerned stands somewhere in between the classic liberal laissez faire on the one extreme and the communist or Marxist view on the other extreme. He clearly concludes that the proper function of government is not limited to maintaining social order but ‘the achievement of distributive justice by placing the highest social value on the need of the neediest’. But he is not advocating complete elimination of inequalities and a fully egalitarian distribution. According to him, natural abilities and circumstances of birth foster privileges and since such inequalities can not be eliminated, a just society will seek to compensate for the resulting privileges by investing its resources including the abilities of the most talented in efforts assigned to improve the plight of the least fortunate. Justice does not mean rewarding those with superior abilities (ethics of reward) but compensating those endowed with lesser ability (ethics of redress). Hence Rawl, it seems, basically provides a theoretical concept of justice to support the liberal welfare state that is a constitutional democracy. He comments:
‘If law and government act effectively to keep market competitive, resources fully employed, property and wealth distributed over time and to maintain the appropriate social minimum, then if there is equality of opportunity underwritten by education for all, the resulting distribution will be just’ .