Tracing the roots of progressive views on the duty to work – Part 5

This is Part 5 of my on-going examination of the concept of ‘duty to work’ and how it was associated with the related idea of a ‘right to work’. In Part 4, I demonstrated that the dual concepts were long-standing ideas and the emergence of neoliberalism distorted their meaning by, one, abandoning the commitment by governments to facilitating the right to work, and, two, perverting the meaning of duty to work. Neoliberalism thus has broken the nexus between the ‘right to work’ responsibilities that the state assumed in the social democratic period and the ‘duty to work’ responsibilities that are imposed on workers in return for income support. That break abandons the binding reciprocity that enriched our societies. In this part, I examine the way in which full employment and work has been treated within the justice literature to extend the notion of reciprocity that we discussed in Part 4. In Part 5 I will consider how this bears on discussions about basic income and coercion.

The earlier parts in this series are:

1. Tracing the roots of progressive views on the duty to work – Part 1 (August 4, 2020).

2. Tracing the roots of progressive views on the duty to work – Part 2 (August 11, 2020).

3. Tracing the roots of progressive views on the duty to work – Part 3 (August 20, 2020).

4. Tracing the roots of progressive views on the duty to work – Part 4 (September 1, 2020).

Work and Justice

Part of our thinking on this topic is guided either explicitly or implicitly by concepts of justice, which have occupied philosophers since day 1 (see Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics).

The idea that reciprocation requires some action from an individual in return for, say, income support, is dealt with in an extensive literature on political coercion and socioeconomic justice.

The question is should an individual be required to accept obligations driven by some idea of societal norm when they have no choice but to comply and when alternative, non-coercive arrangements can be made available.

This is clearly apposite to the duty to work debate.

In the modern era, John Rawls is a central figure since he published his 1971 book – A Theory of Justice.

Applying his notions of justice to government policy approaches to the labour market in the neoliberal era leads to the conclusion that there is a lack of justice.

His idea of a just society was entertained very early in his 1971 book (p.3):

Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought. A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust.

I won’t go into a detailed outline of his approach to justice although I urge those who are unfamiliar with them to familiarise yourself because they are central to many public policy debates in the current day.

I only want to focus on his views on full employment and work.

For John Rawls, a just society is one that is “not only designed to advance the good of its members” but is “also effectively regulated by a public conception of justice.”

He thus writes (p.4):

… it is a society in which (1) everyone accepts and knows that the others accept the same principles of justice, and (2) the basic social institutions generally satisfy and are generally known to satisfy these principles.

So, pure self-interest is tempered here by a generalised “desire for justice” which “limits the pursuit of other ends”.

His thought experiment in outlining what he considered to be a just society required us to imagine a society that we would be willing to become part of at random – that is, without any knowledge of our own ascriptive characteristics (gender, race, inherited wealth, abilities, etc) and without any knowledge of where we would fit into this society’s social hierarchy.

So must design a society in which we might end up being at the bottom of the social ordering.

The idea was that to really think about justice and fairness, one had to assume an “original position” (a ‘veil of ignorance’)- which requires us to ignore who we are and assume we could be anybody.

This exercise eliminates selecting just society principles that reinforce our own interests, and, rather, focus on the design features that might be desirable, if, for example, we were among the most disadvantaged citizens.

The ensuing concept of fairness will thus emerge and logic tells us that it would replicate the sort of society that progressive thinkers would aspire to.

He developed his two principles of justice from this thought experiment.

(1) “First principle: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for all”

(2) “Second principle: Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) To the greatest benefit of the least advantaged (the difference principle) (b) Attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity”.

The second principle is about economic institutions and the distribution of income and wealth but not the distributions of goods and services to specific persons.

He thought inequality was inevitable but should be limited to situations where it made the least fortunate better off. After that point, it should be eliminated through distributive policies.

And he considered that inequalities were justifiable as long as there was equality of opportunity.

This becomes important in our consideration of reciprocal responsibilities.

In determining the practicalities of the ‘difference principle’, John Rawls defined the least fortunate as those lacking what he termed “primary goods”, which are what rational people “want” (1971, p.93):

While persons in the original position do not know their conception of the good life, they do know that they prefer more rather than less primary goods

He outlined a list of potential primary goods, among those relating to the ‘difference principle’ were:

1. “powers and prerogatives of offices and positions of responsibility, particularly those in the main political and economic institutions”

2. “income and wealth”

3. “the social basis of self-respect”

Advancing justice was an exercising in improving the primary goods access to the least advantaged in society.

John Rawls didn’t say much about full employment specifically although his ‘second principle of justice’ becomes relevant.

Clearly, operating from the ‘original position’, it is likely that poeple would specify a society that maintained full employment would be essential.

Humans transform nature to survive through work.

Having access to work becomes essential once we transcend hunter and gathering type activities.

The ‘veil of ignorance’ exercise would thus lead to the ‘right to work’ principle being enshrined in law because then even the most disadvantaged person (which might end up being any one of us in the exercise) would be able to survive.

John Rawls had a complex view of work.

On the one hand, he tied it in with the production of ‘primary goods’ – the act of transforming nature in order to survive and achieve higher material standards of living.

But government becomes important in that process because of the distributive justice principle – the ‘difference principle’ – policy settings should be such that they enhance the aims of the second principle

But in his conception of justice, work goes beyond that narrow aspiration, and, includes the advancement of “self-respect”, which necessitates a much broader conception of work.

He wrote (1971, p.386) that “without … self-respect”:

… nothing may seem worth doing, or if some things have value for us, we lack the will to strive for them. All desire and activity becomes empty and vain, and we sink into apathy and cynicism …

A “well-ordered society” places work as a central part of “communities and associations” which provides the path to “self-respect” (1971, p.387):

It normally suffices that for each person there is some association (one or more) to which he belongs and within which the activities that are rational for him are publicly affirmed by others. In this way, we acquire a sense that what we do in everyday life is worthwhile.

Meagre redistribution of income, according to Rawls does not provide for ‘self-respect’ because it does not “put all citizens in a position to manage their own affairs on a footing of a suitable degreee of social and economic equality”.

Those who just take when they can also give are considered operating outside of societal norms.

John Rawls clearly considered the opportunity to work to be a crucial path to achieving self-respect.

He wrote (1971, p. 244) that one of the responsibilities of government is:

… to bring about reasonably full employment in the sense that those who want work can find it and the free choice of occupation and the deployment of finance are supported by strong effective demand.

So it is not just a responsibility to ensure everyone has sufficient income without concern for the way in which that income is gained.

For John Rawls, the attainment of ‘self-respect’, an essential element of a just society, must include the opportunity to work.

First, increasing employment increases the availability of social primary goods which, if accompanied by other redistributive policies, will increase the share of the least advantaged – thereby satisfying the difference principle.

If the educated middle-class, for example, choose not to work, they are reducing the available goods in the society, while still drawing on the efforts of others.

Rawls would consider that violates the difference principle.

However, we can go further than this.

If the policy settings are such that people are denied the opportunity to work, then the opportunity to attain “offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity” is also denied, which reduces life-time access to primary goods.

Merely satisfying the needs of survival in this context with a non-work income transfer doesn’t correct the denial of ‘fair equality of opportunity’.

Justice thus requires policy settings that achieve full employment.

In his 1993 book – Political Liberalism – he advocated government should maintain a Job Guarantee (employer of last resort – in his terms) – John Rawls wrote (p.lix) that societal stability required:

… society as an employer of last resort.

This is because the lack of work “is destructive .. of citizen’s self respect”.

So when the ‘market’ doesn’t produce enough jobs, the state must fill the gap.

He was critical of what he termed “welfare state capitalism” (WSC), which had abandoned that state responsibility and thus was incapable of achieving a just society.

He considered one of the hallmarks of WSC to be the state providing the social minimum to all, even if they choose not to work, which he says makes people welfare dependent.

Under a just society (his so-called “property-owning democracy” (POD)), he redefined the concept of a social minimum.

This bears on our discussion beause in his 1993 book – The Law of Peoples – he writes denying an individual the “the opportunity of meaningful work” impedes the capacity of that individual the “sense that they are members of society (p.50)”.

But a close reading of this argument leads to the idea of self-respect, which emphasises the need for mutual interaction and the regard of our fellow citizens.

In other words, self-respect requires a mutuality, which in his 1971 book said depended on us:

finding our person and deeds appreciated and confirmed by others who are likewise esteemed and their association enjoyed.

This can be taken to mean that an emphasis on what each person does for work might obscure the social aspects of work – that is, the contribution of each individual to society, which is how we measure that mutuality.


In Part 5, we will continue this discussion and link the ‘duty to work’ concept with theories of justice and discuss coercion.

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2020 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.