Ben Bernanke is a Rawlsian!

Well, maybe.

In a speech at the Baccalaureate Ceremony at Princeton University on Sunday, Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke was channelling some heavy luck egalitarianism along with some New Testament.

He gives ten suggestions to the graduates. In particularly, number three stands out as particularly Rawlsian:

The concept of success leads me to consider so-called meritocracies and their implications. We have been taught that meritocratic institutions and societies are fair. Putting aside the reality that no system, including our own, is really entirely meritocratic, meritocracies may be fairer and more efficient than some alternatives. But

Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke

fair in an absolute sense? Think about it. A meritocracy is a system in which the people who are the luckiest in their health and genetic endowment; luckiest in terms of family support, encouragement, and, probably, income; luckiest in their educational and career opportunities; and luckiest in so many other ways difficult to enumerate–these are the folks who reap the largest rewards. The only way for even a putative meritocracy to hope to pass ethical muster, to be considered fair, is if those who are the luckiest in all of those respects also have the greatest responsibility to work hard, to contribute to the betterment of the world, and to share their luck with others. As the Gospel of Luke says (and I am sure my rabbi will forgive me for quoting the New Testament in a good cause): “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48, New Revised Standard Version Bible). Kind of grading on the curve, you might say.

The ideas of the dessert and merit play an important role in the egalitarian philosophy of Rawls. Specifically, the possession of talents does not amount to exclusively deserving the fruits of those talents. For Rawls, those who land on top have likely worked hard…but the reason they have landed on top has as much to do with where they were born, who their parents were, and the relative stability and prosperity of the community or nation-state.

Paul Krugman in the NY Times painted the Fed Chairs speech in the following way:

OK, this is, whether BB realizes it or not (he probably does) basically a Rawlsian view of the world, in which you think of life as a kind of lottery in which you draw a ticket that includes things like your genetic endowment as well as the wealth of your parents. And what you’re supposed to do, ethically, is support the economic and social system you would choose if you had to enter that lottery not knowing what ticket you were going to draw — if you were making political choices behind the “veil of ignorance”.

Former Fed Chair Alan Greenspan, was known for his association with Ayn Rand, not John Rawls. However, even Greenspan, after leaving the Fed, commented on how the gulf between the rich and everyone else was one of the greatest challenges to the sustainability of our democratic society. The theory of John Rawls is best understood as a framework for a just democracy, and he shared with Greenspan a concern about the impact that the inequality of wealth had on the democratic society…especially as that gulf has grown is recent decades.

In his second suggestion, Bernanke says the following:

Does the fact that our lives are so influenced by chance and seemingly small decisions and actions mean that there is no point to planning, to striving? Not at all. Whatever life may have in store for you, each of you has a grand, lifelong project, and that is the development of yourself as a human being. Your family and friends and your time at Princeton have given you a good start. What will you do with it?

Rawlsian or not, Bernanke’s speech is a beautiful moral statement and it should give all of us something to contemplate.

Categories: Blog

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