Julian Sanchez header image 2

photos by Lara Shipley

Zizek on Hayek

December 11th, 2009 · 17 Comments

This is put a bit more bluntly than anything Hayek says, but I do think there’s a strand of it running through some of his arguments:

What Rawls doesn’t see is how [a society based on the Difference Principle] would create conditions for an uncontrolled explosion of resentment: in it, I would know that my lower status is fully “justified,” and would thus be deprived of excusing my failure as the result of social injustice. Rawls thus proposes a terrifying model of a society in which hierarchy is directly legitimized in natural properties, thereby missing the simple lesson of an anecdote about a Slovene peasant who is given a choice by a good witch: she will either give him one cow, and to his neighbor two cows, or take from him one cow, and from his neighbor two cows – the peasant immediately chooses the second option. (In a more morbid version, the witch tells him: “I will do to you whatever you want, but I warn you, I will do it to your neighbor twice!” The peasant, with a cunning smile, asks her: “Take one of my eyes!”)

Friedrich Hayek knew that it is much easier to accept inequalities if one can claim that they result from an impersonal blind force, so the good thing about “irrationality” of the market success or failure in capitalism (recall the old motif of market as the modern version of the imponderable Fate) is that it allows me precisely to perceive my failure (or success) as “undeserved”, contingent… The fact that capitalism is not “just” is thus a key feature that makes it palpable to the majority (I can accept much more easily my failure if I know that it is not due to my inferior qualities, but to chance).

I don’t think anyone would (or should) seriously try to justify a market society on these grounds, but it seems psychologically accurate. Suffering an injustice at least comes with the consolation of indignation; a misfortune you genuinely believe to be perfectly just becomes far harder to bear.

Update: As commenter Tim notes, Zizek is also taking substantial liberties in characterizing the Rawlsian view, presumably for dramatic effect.  The “worst off” are not some specific set of people doomed to misery by dint of their essential characteristics—who is in the group will depend on the specific set of rules and institutions selected.  And it is Zizek’s own somewhat melodramatic gloss to say that in a Rawlsian society “hierarchy is directly legitimized in natural properties.” The intuition underlying that characterization, I’m assuming, is that in practice the typical effect of the difference principle will be to license disparity in incomes as an inducement for people with exceptional natural talents and capacities to bring them to bear. To be sure, you might equally say this is the point of the market society as well. But I think the psychological effect Zizek’s talking about depends to some extent on how obviously the social distribution is “patterned” (to use Nozick’s word) with a particular end in mind.  The “natural hierarchy” stuff is actually somewhat behind the point, I suspect. It stems, really, from the implicit message: “In this best and fairest of all possible worlds, this just distribution that we scrupulously seek to enforce precisely for your benefit, you are nevertheless at the bottom of the ladder.”  Maybe not, of course. People might still point to the ultimately “lucky”distribution of “natural endowments” or the inescapable environmental differences that dispose them to make effective use of those endowments.  But it would seem to require a good deal of reconstruction of the way non-philosophers think about desert.

Tags: General Philosophy · Markets



17 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Will // Dec 11, 2009 at 12:52 am

    This isn’t a totally original insight, but I’m struck by the parallels between Zizek’s critique and some of the stuff you see on the more traditionalist conservative websites. I remember a post at Front Porch Republic that argued the hierarchical distinctions of premodern societies were preferable to a purely meritocratic order because arbitrary social structures don’t rub people’s noses in their own inadequacy.

  • 2 Tim // Dec 11, 2009 at 2:41 am

    Zizek or whomever he is relying upon just seems to be wrong about Rawls. There is no demand that the difference principle only allow inequalities based on natural properties, nor is such tracking that the necessarily or likely effect.

    Rawls says: “The unequal inheritance of wealth is no inherently unjust than the unequal inheritance of intelligence. It is true that the former is presumably more easily subject to social control; but the essential thing is that as far as possible inequalities founded on either should satisfy the difference principle. Thus inheritance is permissible provided that the resulting inequalities are to the advantage of the least fortunate and compatible with liberty and fair equality of opportunity.” (TJ 278)

    So I don’t know what Zizek means when he says that Rawls promotes a model where “hierarchy is directly legitimized in natural properties”.

    Rawls’ principles select for a basic structure based on helping the worst off group (those who Zizek refers to as a “failure”!). In fact, it makes no claim that those in the worst off group deserve to be there. The worst off group is not a rigid designator; its members vary based on what basic structure is enacted. If there had been another basic structure selected, different people would likely be in the worst off group, and those who would otherwise be in the worst-off group might be in the middle or upper group. My position is greatly contingent on the specific overall structure of society, which is a complicated system. Further, which basic structure is preferred is those that helped the “failures.”

    I think the insight can be reformulated, but it does not work as presented.

  • 3 sam // Dec 11, 2009 at 8:02 am

    “[I]n the Rawls’ model of a just society, social inequalities are tolerated only insofar as they are based on natural inequalities… What Rawls doesn’t see is how such a society would create conditions for an uncontrolled explosion of resentment: in it, I would know that my lower status is fully ‘justified,’ and would thus be deprived of excusing my failure as the result of social injustice.”

    Something doesn’t strike me quite right about that. Are second string members of NFL teams are filled with resentment? Anybody know?

  • 4 DivisionByZero // Dec 11, 2009 at 9:36 am

    Tim, you may be right about Rawls (I don’t much about him really) but to focus on that is to miss the point. Zizek’s interpretation of Rawls is just a point of departure for his own discussion of inequality. His interpretation may be a bit of slander but the point he is trying to make doesn’t depend on his interpretation of Rawls being correct.

  • 5 stephen // Dec 11, 2009 at 10:31 am

    That is an interesting point and I agree. As an avid tennis player I can tell you, in the history of the sport no tennis player has ever lost a match to a superior player. Loosing is always the result of something I did wrong, or the other guy just got lucky, or she was sandbagging, or whatever. It is never a just outcome.

    I have to say, given that I don’t see any large, complex human society, absent a whole lot of natural/artificial selection, ever existing absent a pretty steep hierarchy, I think I prefer a system that gives me a nice little psychological crutch to go along with my low status. Not an argument to convert the heathen, but something I am going to tell myself for now.

  • 6 sam // Dec 11, 2009 at 10:50 am

    “As an avid tennis player I can tell you, in the history of the sport no tennis player has ever lost a match to a superior player. ”

    So, Tiger beats the field with a blown knee and a broken leg, and his competition says to themselves the outcome was unjust because they didn’t play better? Really?

  • 7 Daniel // Dec 11, 2009 at 10:57 am

    I raised Zizek’s first point about Rawls almost verbatim in my Intro to Moral Philosophy course and got blank stares from the entire room. This post comes as some kind of weird, delayed validation.

    “The worst off group is not a rigid designator; its members vary based on what basic structure is enacted.”

    I think the crucial difference here is that Zizek is talking about how it would ‘feel’ to be a member of an explicitly Rawlsian society. You’re not wrong as a general matter, but the sentiments of members of society is not a general matter. The multitude of other possible lives people could have tends not to eliminate their resentments about their actual lives.

    Basically I think one major difference is whether you take from Rawls general principles (veil of ignorance, benefit-the-least-well-off) and use them as a measure of the result of systems, or you assume that Rawls’ preferred/allowed socioeconomic distribution will be centrally directed. Zizek, I think, assumes the latter.

  • 8 Daniel // Dec 11, 2009 at 11:00 am

    I guess I should have said centrally justified or implicitly mandated.

  • 9 sam // Dec 11, 2009 at 11:06 am

    “I raised Zizek’s first point about Rawls almost verbatim in my Intro to Moral Philosophy course and got blank stares from the entire room. ”

    Wouldn’t that indicate to you that there’s someting counterintuitive about it?

  • 10 stephen // Dec 11, 2009 at 12:30 pm


    I was being a bit sarcastic, obviously players in all sports loose graciously at times, but the overwhelming number of us don’t, despite what you hear in press conferences. I was making a statistical claim couched in absolute terms for effect.

    Also, I was also talking about amateur tennis, as that is the source I am drawing my sample from. But to your question, my answer would be “most likely”. Especially in golf where randomness plays a huge role, I am sure that a lot of players (most?) feel like they could be just as good as Tiger if that stupid little ball would just roll their way more often. I would bet that the unspoken “consensus” in the proverbial locker room after that tournament was that tiger is one lucky mother fucker.

    BTW read Tignor on excuses in tennis if you are interested in this from a tennis players perspective:


  • 11 Tim // Dec 12, 2009 at 12:41 am

    Zizek writes that a person in Rawls’ society is “deprived of excusing my failure as the result of social injustice”

    Julian writes: “But it would seem to require a good deal of reconstruction of the way non-philosophers think about desert.”

    Well, yes, and this would be the case in Rawls’ well-ordered society. The difference principle and the reasoning for it relies on such reconstruction about how citizens think about desert. I know, it seems like a cheap response to say: “In ideal theory…” and I usually think it is cheap. The point here is that in non-ideal theory, people with unreconstructed notions of desert do not accept Rawls’ theory of social justice, and hence do not lose the excuse for failure (see Zizek’s quote) that acceptance of such theory would entail. Maybe I’m too quick here.

  • 12 Tim // Dec 12, 2009 at 2:16 am

    Julian: thanks for the reformulation. You nicely put aside the issue of natural hierarchy.

    However, it is wrong to label the implicit message as: “In this best and fairest of all possible worlds, this just distribution that we scrupulously seek to enforce PRECISELY FOR YOUR BENEFIT, you are nevertheless at the bottom of the ladder.”

    I don’t think this is the implicit message. I think you do not address fully the implications of the point that the well-off group is not a rigid designator. You get that the worst-off group does not identify a specific group of people with specific traits. However, I think you miss, or miss the implications of, the point that it does not even identify specific individuals. Since (many of) these individuals could be better off in another society, this society is not strictly designed for their benefit.

    Suppose we imagine a society in which the difference principle is realized. Suppose that Jack is in the worse off group. If you’re right about the implicit message, then you’re assuming society is out to give the most benefit a specific person, *Jack*.

    But this makes no sense. Suppose that Jack is really good at organic farming, but his society doesn’t reward that (in the circumstances he lives in, rewarding such farmers wouldn’t help the worst off). Jack can argue that he would be better off if the basic structure of society were changed to benefit him. He can say to society: “isn’t the difference principle about making the worst-off better, and aren’t I the worst off?” The response of society to Jack cannot be: “This society is designed to make you, Jack, the best off you can be; in any other society, you Jack, would be even worse off.” In Jack’s case, that is just factually wrong. The response of others in a just society (with the difference principle realized) would have to be: “Jack, it is -or may be- true you would be better off if the rules of society are changed. And it is true you are *now* in the worst off group. But if we change the rules to your benefit, then someone will be made even worse off than you are now.” (Alternatively, we will just redistribute who is in the worst off group, without changing the level of the worst-off).

    Now, I grant that this is a somewhat subtle point. And it may be that people may not get this. But keep in mind that if Jack misses this subtlety, and he still makes this complaint, he does not think society is just. Furthermore, it is one thing for us intellectually to think this is a subtle point; but we can’t assume it will remain subtle for those living in a well-ordered society. I think people would tend to get it after people periodically make such mistaken complaints.

    My basic point is that people either understand the difference principle, or that psychologically, they will tend to still believe there is injustice. I mean, I acknowledge there is space for misunderstanding the reasoning for the difference principle, and yet still thinking it is just. But keep in mind that we may tend to exaggerate this likelihood of this posisbility

    So Julian’s message cannot be the implicit message of the difference principle. Let me say where I think the real force of the implicit message comes from.

    It can only be the implicit message IF we assume that everyone in the worst-off group is always in the worst-off group, through technological changes, and so on. It’s as if one were natural talented overall, rather than having specific talents (natural or otherwise). This is the conceit. Now, perhaps there may be some people who will occupy more or less the same level under a wide range of basic structures under different levels of technology and so on. But for a lot of people, a few decades can make a huge difference in what society rewards, even if were to operate on the difference principle.

    Again, if we were to accept the difference principle, and the reasoning for it, then we would tend not to misunderstand its implicit message. There wouldn’t be the danger pointed out here.

  • 13 Tim // Dec 12, 2009 at 2:35 am

    Perhaps it might be said that I’m nitpicking. Let me make somewhat more forceful points.

    (1) At least sometimes, if not often, the difference principle could mandate a free market society with a highly progressive income tax. Who is on top and who is on bottom at any given time might vary a good deal as what markets demand fluctuate. There would be an impersonal system of the sort that Hayek demands. Julian, would your worry apply in such a society?

    (2) If it is the underlying principles that matter, I I cannot see how it makes sense to say Rawls has a patterned conception of justice and Nozick does not, at least in any sense that is relevant to the psychological effects. The difference principle does not say “be a socialist” or “be a welfare statist.” It leaves both open, depending on what helps the worst off group in those circumstances. Further, there is no demand that the difference principle promote a specific distribution. The difference principle is comparative, selecting the basic structure by comparing the distributions they tend to produce. Specifically, among the possible distributions that could be produced under different basic structures, this basic structure has the one that benefits most the worst off group. I think that Nozick’s patterning critique misses these subtleties. I hope that is a somewhat more forceful point.

  • 14 Julian Sanchez // Dec 14, 2009 at 3:53 pm

    I think the point holds good. You are, of course, right that strictly speaking a well-ordered society is not arranged for the maximal benefit of *the particular individuals* in the worst-off position in that society. But it remains the case that one can say to people in that position: “You are as well off as you can fairly be; only by means of injustice could the rules be such that you were better off.”

    I think you’re also right to stress that both the psychological point Zizek makes and (to a lesser extent) Nozick’s patterning critique depend a great deal on the specific institutions that actually fall out of Rawls’ abstract principles of justice. It is conceivable—and indeed, I recollect that Hayek believed it to be the case—that a market order with minimal intervention satisfies the difference principle, in which case both points (though Zizek’s in particular) would lose most of their bite. In fairness to both of them, I think most people who count themselves partisans of Justice as Fairness assume that it yields a substantially more interventionist program.

    On the other hand, it occurs to me that G.A. Cohen’s critique of Rawls yields a possible answer to Zizek’s: To the extent a well-ordered society is marked by substantial disparity, one might still feel it was unjust or greedy of those higher up the ladder not to offer up their talents more cheaply or be more charitable with their surplus.

  • 15 Julian Elson // Jan 3, 2010 at 3:11 am

    I’m late to this thread, but I guess I find it hard to believe that there’s anyone who would find the self-professed unfairness of capitalism preferable to the self-professed fairness of Rawlsianism.

    I can imagine a poor person in a capitalist system who adopts a fatalistic attitude of weathering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune without bitterness, and who would likewise be resigned to a better (but still lowly) position in a Rawlsian economy (if the Rawlsian distribution were correctly implemented). I can imagine a poor person who is angry about the unfairness of capitalism, and would likewise be angry about being near the bottom of a Rawlsian distribution of income. I can imagine a poor person who is angry about capitalism, and less so about Rawlsianism (under which, after all, the poorest person is richer than she’d otherwise be).

    This thread, though, is about a poor person who is content about poverty in capitalism, because capitalism is self-professedly unfair, then gets mad about a Rawlsian economy because it claims to be fair. I find it very difficult to actually imagine such a person. (I can see a poor person who believes capitalism is actually moral, on Nozick-style grounds, and forgoes the material benefits of some Rawlsian alternative on moral grounds, but we’re talking about a poor person whose consolation is that the capitalist system is amoral.)

    Q: So, you’re poor under the capitalist system; why don’t you mind?

    A: It’s okay that I’m poor, because it’s unfair.

    Q: What? Why should unfairness be a justification for this system?

    A: Well, you see, it’s not supposed to be fair. Capitalism makes no promises of fairness, and it delivers none. Thus I am satisfied.

    Q: Shouldn’t a system be fair though? I mean, this is not like a grocery store failing to carry computers, where computers are outside of the purview of the grocery’s function but exist elsewhere. Surely if fairness is a consideration at all, the economic system must be fair or it is failing by the standards of human decency, even if it isn’t failing by its own standards. If the system isn’t fair, but is still successful by its own standards, then aren’t the standards wrong?

    A: Maybe that’s true as a matter of morality, but I personally don’t want be treated fairly, even if that would mean that I’m better off than I am now, but still worse off than some or most others. Fair treatment would expose me to the truth about my own limitations, rather than allowing me to simply write everything off as systemic as detrimentally unfair treatment does.


    I don’t know about you, but personally, I’d rather fail a test because I didn’t know the material than fail a test because the grader miscalculated my score. I’d rather pass the test than either, but I personally resent undeserved failures more than deserved ones. (I might find deserved failure to be more depressing than undeserved failure, and depression sucks, but Zizek is talking about resentment specifically.)

  • 16 Equality and Utilitarianism « History Club // Feb 14, 2010 at 10:56 pm

    […] utilitarianism, because those flaws will likely lead to the flaws of classical liberalism as well. Rawls’ Difference Principle points to what I mean about “evening out”: As long as a difference in how […]

  • 17 m65 // Feb 16, 2010 at 6:52 am

    good read thanks for the share. i really like the way the article is written and also the design of the website

Leave a Comment