Downward Mobility and Rawlsian Justice

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Sturm College of Law


Social mobility, Economic mobility, John Rawls, Legitimate expectations, Difference principle, Equality of opportunity, Automation, Trade, Social change


Technological and societal changes have made downward social and economic mobility a pressing issue in real-world politics. This article argues that a Rawlsian society would not provide any special protection against downward mobility, and would act rightly in declining to provide such protection. Special treatment for the downwardly mobile can be grounded neither in Rawls’s core principles—the basic liberties, fair equality of opportunity, and the difference principle—nor in other aspects of Rawls’s theory (the concept of legitimate expectations, the idea of a life plan, the distinction between allocative and distributive justice, or the distinction between ideal and nonideal theory). Instead, a Rawlsian society is willing to sacrifice particular individuals’ ambitions and plans for the achievement of justice, and offers those who lose out from justified change no special solicitude over and above the general solicitude extended to all. Rather than guaranteeing the maintenance of any particular individual or group’s economic position, it provides all of its members—the upwardly mobile, the downwardly mobile, and the immobile—a form of security that is at once more generous and more limited: that they will receive the liberties, opportunities, and resources promised by the principles of justice.