My year as a visiting professor with the Department of Economics at Harvard is coming to an end, and I am on a pilgrimage of sorts. Today was spent in Mount Auburn Cemetery, visiting the notable and still living dead.
John Rawls died on November 24th, 2002. He is buried in a part of the cemetery called Harvard Hill, where you can see over the tree tops, just barely, the spire of Sanders Theatre in Memorial Hall. Professor Rawls is the author of A Theory of Justice, published in 1971. I read it for the first time in the early 1980s as a graduate student when working on my Master’s degree at McGill University. Rawls asks what kind of social contract would we enter into to govern the workings of our society if we had to negotiate it behind a veil of ignorance, not knowing where we stood in society, knowing nothing at all about ourselves, not our social rank, not even who are parents were. His answer? A good society is one in which the interests of the least advantaged have priority: social welfare is improved only when the least advantaged advance.
Also buried on Harvard Hill, barely 10 meters away, is Robert Nozick, who died on January 23rd, 2002. Nozick’s great work is Anarchy, State, and Utopia, a forceful response to Rawls, published in 1974. Nozick argued for a minimal state, focusing on the importance of individual property rights. Social welfare is based upon process, the freedom to engage in voluntary exchange in the exercise of property rights is what makes a society good, and the state should play a minimal role providing only those most basic services that uphold property rights. Let the outcomes be what they will be, as long as this process respected.
Two books, still alive, and very much for our times.