John Rawls and Trade Adjustment Assistance

In 1971, John Rawls published what is perhaps the most important work in the history of American political philosophy. A Theory of Justice presented an impressive new vision of how to understand and justify the requirements of distributive justice. I won't go into detail into his intricate thought experiment known as the "original position," but those who are interested can consult pages 190-200 of A Commercial Republic. The gist of Rawls's theory is that social and economic advantages are embedded in a broader context that play a major role in making them possible. Thus, we might think that we earned our various positions by dint of our native abilities and hard work. (And, as Americans, we do.) But the reality is that, in Rawls's words, "any scheme of desert presupposes the existence of a cooperative scheme" and is therefore dependent on it. Since our good fortune and hard luck are both, to a significant extent, products of the social contract, it is unfair to expect people to bear the brunt of economic misfortune entirely on their own. As a result, society has an obligation to take care of the economic "losers." That means that the less-well-off are entitled to social redress, but also that successful people have a duty to give up some of their economic gains in order to ensure a basic level of fairness in the society overall.

I thought this was just a funny Internet photo, but it is actually a real thing! Source: openculture.com

I thought this was just a funny Internet photo, but it is actually a real thing!

Source: openculture.com

Trade Adjustment Assistance, I've long believed, is a perfect application of Rawls's theory. This is a federal program, first enacted in 1962, by which US workers who have lost their jobs because of international trade can obtain, in the words of the Department of Labor, "job training, job search and relocation allowances, income support, and assistance with healthcare premium costs." The program embodies Rawlsian principles because it acknowledges that international trade doesn't happen by itself. The terms under which it is conducted are defined by international agreements. The United States (as well as other countries) could practice some form of protectionism to try to protect some of those jobs. But we have decided, through our political process, that the benefits of free trade outweigh the costs. (Whether that is the correct determination is not the issue here.) Thus, in a very important way, we impose burdens on a certain segment of society. It is therefore only fair that we make those people whole. Rawls would argue that we are entitled to prioritize trade, but that we are not allowed to subsequently refuse to take care of those who suffer from such a determination.

The reason why I bring this up today is that approval of Trade Adjustment Assistance constitutes the latest hurdle for President Obama in trying to get Congressional approval for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The Senate approved a measure to extend this measure, which would otherwise expire on September 30 of this year. Today, the House will vote on it, and the president is facing stiff resistance there. Republicans oppose it for their typical reasons, but Obama is also having a hard time convincing House Democrats to vote for extending Trade Adjustment Assistance. They believe that the bill would not fund the program at adequate levels. Thus their lack of support represents less a rejection of the Rawlsianism embedded in the project than a more technical disagreement about the amount of assistance to which displaces workers are entitled. The White House, on the other hand, fears the worst in the event that Trade Adjustment Assistance is not approved. In the words of New York Times reporter Jonathan Weisman, "if trade adjustment assistance...is not extended and expanded on Friday, Republicans may let it die for good." And if the program dies, then even fewer Democrats will support the TPP itself. The agreement's prospects for passage are already shaky, and the administration would not welcome additional defections.

What the debate over Trade Adjustment Authority manifests is a simultaneous clash between philosophical principles (Democratic Rawlsianism versus Republican libertarianism) and between political tactics (the administration insistence that the program's existence is at stake versus the Congressional Democrats' concerns over funding). The vote is today. Call your Congressperson if you are interested. This is how the sausage is made!

[Update: Today the House voted down Trade Adjustment Assistance.]