The other part of Tomasi’s argument regarding the difference principle concerns the proper balance of the goods it covers and the differential levels of wealth it can be said to justify. On Tomasi’s view the difference principle properly understood is concerned primarily with the maximization of wealth and income, and that this is consistent with considerable inequalities. In this section and the next we argue, contra Tomasi, that other goods such as meaningful work should be included within the index of advantage that the difference principle covers, and that the Rawlsian notion of self-respect provides grounds for limiting inequalities to which the difference principle may give rise.
The index of goods governed by the difference principle includes wealth and income, powers and positions of responsibility, and the social bases of self-respect (Tomasi 2012, p. 186). These goods are required by individuals in order to develop Rawls’s two moral powers: the capacity for responsible self-authorship, and the capacity to honour their fellow citizens as responsible self-authors (Tomasi 2012, p. 184).Footnote 1 Tomasi notes that these goods may turn out to be rivalrous (Tomasi 2012, p. 186); increases in powers and positions of responsibility, say, may come at the price of reduced levels of wealth and income. One instance of this highlighted by Tomasi is the possible trade-off between higher wages—as an example of wealth and income—and the interest that individuals have, according to Rawls, in ‘meaningful work in free association with others’ (Tomasi 2012, p. 190; Rawls 1999, p. 257)—as an example of the powers and positions of responsibility (Tomasi 2012, p. 186).
If meaningful work is understood to include such things as greater democratic control of the workplace, with greater say over such things as the division of labour and decisions about what gets produced, then Tomasi claims overall productivity may suffer and wages may be lower than under the more hierarchical firms typical of capitalism where the emphasis is on increasing wealth (Tomasi 2012, p. 186; see also p. 189). That is, where social democracy of the Rawlsian stripe aims to realize a bundle of goods, this will mean trade-offs that lower income and wealth. Market democratic regimes, by contrast, seek primarily to maximize wealth.
Is Tomasi correct? Perhaps it is possible, by contrast, to imagine a properly constructed social democracy along Rawlsian lines that could match a less regulated economy in terms of productivity and wealth generation such that workers could enjoy equally high levels of wages as they would under capitalism and find fulfillment in the workplace.Footnote 2 We might imagine a case where worker-led, stake-holding firms and enterprises with a different division of labour and managerial control that fosters enthusiasm and commitment, eliminates the wastage typically associated with hierarchical firms. Days lost to sickness by an unenthusiastic, unmotivated, and alienated workforce, or dissatisfaction at management control and surveillance of worker behavior at the micro level are common complaints about the inefficiency of capitalism. Perhaps these might be markedly reduced under social democracy with its more democratic organization of the workplace. This is an open empirical question, but its possibility is not ruled out in principle; at least, not on the grounds of probability canvassed in the previous section. Yet, it is important to note that there are reasons to think it unlikely. If such firms were really more productive, then we should wonder why, even under contemporary conditions, they are not more widespread than they actually are. If they were potentially more productive, then we should expect to see not only more of them, but entrepreneurs and investors buying up companies and turning them over to worker control in order to return a greater profit.
This empirical worry, along with Rawls’s claim that citizens in a just society may be prepared to accept a lower-growth—or even stagnant—economy in return for the realization of other goods and values is sufficient to take Tomasi’s claim about the rivalrous nature of such goods seriously (see Rawls 2001, p. 159). Rawls does not, it seems, rely on the idea of a social democracy outperforming laissez faire capitalism in terms of growth and productivity (see Rawls 2001, p. 178). That said, occasionally, Tomasi expresses the alternative optimistic view that much that counts as meaningful work may actually be realized under modern free market conditions (Tomasi 2012, p. 188). Current modes of production provide modern workers with considerable control over the structure and content of their roles, and increase worker bargaining power. Creativity, innovation, and independence are rewarded under modern capitalism. Gone are the days of the Fordist production line. Instead, the service economy—even the ‘experience economy’—and information manipulation are centre-stage. Production is much more ‘individualized’ than it was even twenty years ago, and many workers experience a degree of autonomous control over their working lives that was previously unimaginable. The market demands and rewards these features, rather than stifling them.
As an empirical claim this optimism is contestable. Tomasi demonstrates something of a white-collared view of work. Whilst some roles may have changed their shape in response to market conditions in the post-industrial economy, the vast majority of people still work at jobs that are typically mundane, routinized, repetitive, and require discipline and conformity. True, those with marketable talents may enjoy significant opportunities to develop them in the way Tomasi observes, but most people likely still view work as a bind—something to be endured—and prefer to get away from it rather than spend more time at their place of employment.
It seems, then, that the conflict between goods such as income and wealth on the one hand, and meaningful work on the other, remains a legitimate concern. Faced with this potential trade-off, Tomasi suggests there are reasons to prefer a trade-off that maximizes income at the expense of these other goods (Tomasi 2012, pp. 187–189). The claim that income is preferable to meaningful work might be understood in two ways. First, it might mean, when faced with the choice, everyone would prefer greater income. Second, it might mean even if some would not prefer higher income, there are strong reasons to view higher income as more valuable than meaningful work.Footnote 3
By way of illustration of the first meaning, consider Tomasi’s example of academics faced with the choice between finances for research and sitting in more departmental meetings. Framed in this way, every academic is likely to prefer more money to conduct the central aspect of their roles at the expense of any gains in democratic control of the workplace that more—or longer—meetings might bring. There are, however, reasons to doubt this claim. Even in Tomasi’s narrow example, we might easily imagine academics strongly preferring the retention of professional autonomy regarding matters such as curriculum design, student admission criteria, colleague selection, and freedom of inquiry that they have traditionally enjoyed. The prospect of relinquishing control of such aspects to administrators in return for higher pay or research allowances is not self-evidently an attractive idea. It seems unlikely that preferences always pull in the direction of greater income, as Tomasi suggests. Given that we spend a considerable portion of our lives at work, individuals have a strong interest in enjoying safe, pleasant, and enjoyable working conditions and practices, and in inhabiting roles that are rewarding beyond the level of financial remuneration they bring. That some might reject greater monetary reward for workplace goods does not seem unreasonable or unlikely.
The second meaning of the claim that there are reasons to prefer increased wealth over and above meaningful work is that there are reasons independent of the preferences of individuals. To flesh out this claim we might think of money as a more flexible good than meaningful work and, as such, it enhances individual agency to a much greater extent by providing the means for the pursuit of a wide range of meaningful activities (Tomasi 2012, p. 189).Footnote 4
Again, however, we should note the strong interest we have in enjoying working (and other social) arrangements that are fulfilling. The fact that most of us will spend a significant percentage of our lives at work suggests that having control over that aspect will actively enhance our agency or autonomy in a way that more money would not. Furthermore, inhabiting roles that are mundane, routinized, and heavily controlled may actively frustrate that interest by damaging self-respect. If some occupy roles that are creative, highly autonomous and fulfilling compared with the rest who lack such employment, then this risks creating differences in social status along this dimension. This may obtain even where those who do not occupy the elite status have a level of income and wealth that is maximized under such a system (Stilz 2014, p. 434). Status is a positional good. As Rawls observes:
[I]n a status system, not everyone can have the highest rank. High status assumes other positions beneath it; so if we seek a higher status for ourselves, we in effect support a scheme that entails others having lower status (Rawls 2001, p. 131).
When such attitudes are internalized by individuals, this can prevent them seeing themselves as equals with their fellow citizens. Instead, they come to see themselves (and be seen by others) as inferior. This undermines self-respect and is ‘corrosive of the secure sense of standing and agency that is essential to our dignity as agents’ (O’Neill 2008, p. 128). Agency is harmed when wealth and income are maximized at the expense of the other goods, not promoted.
Tomasi might be correct to point out that Rawls provides little guidance for weighing such goods other than the hope that it might be achieved once we consider our fundamental interests are in the original position (see Rawls 1999, p. 80). But, the desire for a finer-grained process that balances the various interests individuals may have does not seem likely to lead to Tomasi’s conclusion that wealth and income should be maximized at the expense of the other goods. Sometimes higher income might just not be more valuable than meaningful work.