Coming Soon:

Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

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Sunday, September 24, 2017


A bit more than two years ago, on July 12, 2015, in a post discussing John Rawls’ well-known theory of justice, I introduced the notion of an inequality surplus, which I suggested lies at the heart of that theory.  On my walk this morning, I was delivering, in my mind, a talk that I called “A  Game-Theoretic Analysis and Critique of John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice,” in which I made much of this notion of an inequality surplus and called it into question.  When I coined this term, my focus was on Rawls, not on the larger question of what a socialist society might look like, but the analysis I offered there is directly relevant to this very important matter, and it occurred to me that I ought perhaps to revisit my remarks and expand upon them.  Let me begin by quoting some of what I wrote two years ago:

“The centerpiece of the theory is the two principles for the general regulation of society that, according to Rawls, would be unanimously chosen by individuals engaged in what Game Theorists call a Bargaining Game.   Here is the passage in which Rawls first introduces those principles:

The conception of justice which I want to develop may be stated in the form of two principles as follows: first, each person participating in a practice, or affected by it, has an equal right to the most extensive liberty compatible with a like liberty for all; and second, inequalities are arbitrary unless it is reasonable to expect that they will work out for everyone's advantage, and provided the positions and offices to which they attach, or from which they may be gained, are open to all.

The central idea of these principles is this:  Modern society consists of large-scale bureaucratic organizations -- corporations, universities, hospitals, government offices, armies, and so forth -- in which there are clearly defined roles to which attach specified duties and compensations.  The default baseline situation, we may imagine, is one in which all the roles receive the same compensation -- a situation of absolute equality.  However, if the ablest individuals with the best sets of talents and skills are drawn into certain key positions, the institutions will function much more efficiently -- to be put it as simply as possible, the net output of the institution will be higher.  Now, to ensure that these especially talented or well-prepared individuals end up in those key positions, it is necessary to pay them higher salaries, and this is an element of inequality.  But the gain from their greater efficiency will be such that after they receive their added compensation, there will be something left over that can be given to everyone else [or to the least advantaged representative individual, depending on which version of Rawls' theory we are considering.]

Let us call this something extra the "inequality surplus" [not Rawls' term, by the way.]  Assuming, as Rawls does, that the individuals in the society are "not envious," which is to say assuming that those getting less in the way of compensation than the key individuals do not begrudge them their higher salaries so long as they themselves are getting more than they would without the productive efforts of those key individuals, everyone will endorse this system.  And that, in a nutshell, without all the baroque elaborations, is Rawls' argument.

Since this is rather abstract, let me restate it by way of a hypothetical example.  Consider a manufacturing firm that makes washer-dryers.  The employees, we may suppose for simplicity's sake, are divided into executives who direct the operations of the firm, production line workers who assemble the washer-dryers from components delivered to the factory, and loading dock workers who unload the components when they are delivered by truck to the back door of the factory and load the finished washer-dryers onto trucks waiting to take them to retail outlets.

Clearly, the earnings of the company will be much greater if those with special skills, training, and talent for corporate management are assigned to the executive jobs, and that fact will make it possible to raise everyone's salary.  But there is a problem.  Rawls does not identify this problem, but his theory makes no sense at all unless we assume that the problem exists, so we are justified, I think, in assuming it.

The problem is this:  After the professionally administered aptitude tests are scored, and the individuals with special management talents are identified, they are offered jobs as managers.  But when the selected individuals are invited into the executive suites, they say, "Thanks, but no thanks.  I would rather work on the loading dock." 

"What is this?"  you say incredulously.  "Where on earth does Rawls say that in A Theory of Justice?"  Well, nowhere of course.  But he must be assuming it, even though he doesn't know it, because if those tapped for management actually prefer to be in management [or, technically, are indifferent between executive suite and loading dock, but never mind that], WHY PAY THEM MORE TO TAKE THE JOBS?

"But it is not just to pay them no more than loading dock workers, and Rawls says his theory is a theory of justice!” you protest.  "Ah," I reply, "you have not read Rawls as carefully as you ought.  Rawls does not start with a pre-systematic concept of justice that he assumes without argument.  He starts with a collection of rationally self-interested individuals who, according to him, will out of self-interest choose these two principles, and the fact that they will out of self-interest choose these principles MAKES THEM the principles of justice."

There is no reason for me, a rationally self-interested individual, to approve a system of unequal compensation unless I believe that doing so will draw into key positions individuals whose greater efficiency will end up benefitting ME.   

Does anyone at all really believe that offered a choice between corner offices in the executive suite and nine-to-five jobs on the loading dock, potential executives will opt for the loading dock unless they are paid hefty salaries well above that of their lesser brothers and sisters out back?  Rawls does.  He must.  Otherwise the centerpiece of his theory collapses.”

The central notion is the inequality surplus.  Unequal compensation, Rawls believes, is required to draw into key jobs those with special talents or acquired abilities, whose superior performance increases output more than what is required to compensate them, leaving a surplus that can be distributed to others in a manner that leads everyone to prefer the structure of unequal compensation to the baseline of equal compensation with lower total output and hence universally lower compensation.  In short, Rawls assumes, self-interest will lead everyone to prefer inequality, including those who get the short end of the longer stick.

Rawls’ focus is on the motivation of the losers in this competition.  They too must prefer the outcome in order for his argument to work.  But let us focus instead on the winners, those who secure the better paid positions.  Rawls, following virtually everyone in the field of Sociology of his day, simply assumes that higher pay is required to get the especially talented to take the demanding jobs.  Is this even notionally plausible?

Let us set to one side one irrelevant consideration, namely the cost in time and effort and money required to acquire the productive skills.  Clearly, the self-interested individuals assumed by Rawls’ theory will not spend many years and tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars on special education or training unless they are in some way compensated for that expenditure.  But in a well-run socialist society such costs will be socialized, as indeed many of them are even in capitalist societies.

In effect, we can imagine talented young men and women being asked the following question:  Would you rather spend four or six or eight years learning to be a manufacturing executive or a doctor or a lawyer or a college professor, during which time your room, board, tuition, and pocket money will be paid by the state, after which you will work until age 65 [or whatever] as a manufacturing executive or doctor or lawyer or college professor, or would you like to start working right now as a garbage collector or office secretary or production line worker or truck driver, working until age 65 [or whatever], earning in either case the same salary with the same benefits? 

In order for Rawls’ argument to make any sense at all [even before we get into the arcana of the Veil of Ignorance and the Strains of Commitment and the rest], he must assume that the specially talented young men and women will in general reply, “Well, if the pay’s the same, I’d just as soon be a truck driver, thank you very much.”  In which case, a bidding war starts, with society raising the pay for doctors and professors and business executives until their indifference between those jobs and truck driving or garbage collection or whatever is overwhelmed by their desire for the higher salary, and they say, reluctantly, “Well, all right, if you put it that way, I will consent to spend my life as a Professor of Philosophy rather than as a departmental secretary in a Philosophy Department.”  I say “reluctantly,” because Rawls’ theory requires that they be paid just enough to get them to consent.  Anything beyond that would, he says, be unjust [which is to say, would not be chosen by the rationally self-interested actors in the Original Position.]

I suggest that put this way, the assumption, one that Rawls shares with the entire world of sociologists and economists, is downright nutty.

Saturday, September 23, 2017


My preparations are now complete for the talk I shall give at Columbia a week from next Friday.  Here is the poster that has been created for the event.

After reviewing several familiar defenses of liberal education, I shall offer an entirely new and rather unexpected defense, riffing on a passage in Herbert Marcuse's One-Dimensional Man.  I shall be very interested to see the response.  The talk will be recorded, by the way, and uploaded onto YouTube.

Thursday, September 21, 2017


If the appalling devastation in Puerto Rico drives large numbers of Puerto Ricans to transfer to the States, as they have a right to do, inasmuch as they are citizens, their decision to move could alter the politics of several states.


Donald Trump stood before the General Assembly of the United Nations and threatened to kill 25 million North Koreans.  He is a war criminal.  I do not have anything witty or insightful or scholarly to say about him or about the scores of millions of people who elected him.  We must do whatever we can to limit the damage he is able to inflict on this country and on the world.

Obviously no one of us can do much, but we have to do something.  Does anyone think it would be helpful for me to resurrect the Friday Lists?

Wednesday, September 20, 2017


Nine days ago, I posted a lighthearted account of my engagement with jigsaw puzzles, in the course of which I referred to a resident of our building who, I said, is "the maven of the puzzles."  She is an eighty-five year old woman named Mary Ann Clarkson, a cheerful, heavyset woman devoted to progressive politics and the Rachel Maddow show.  When we moved in, Mary Ann informed me in a conspiratorial voice that there was a "deplorable" in the building [a Trump supporter] and that we did not talk politics when she was around.  Mary Ann has been my favorite among the many new acquaintances I have made since moving to Carolina Meadows.

Mary Ann suffers from congestive heart failure.  I learned this morning that she passed away suddenly yesterday while visiting her daughter.  Somehow, the light seems to have gone out over the puzzle table in the lobby.

Someone reading this blog alerted Mary Ann that I had referred to her in a post, and she was very pleased.  It is a small thing, but I am happy that in this way I was able to let her know a bit of what she had so quickly come to mean to me.

I shall miss Mary Ann Clarkson.

Monday, September 18, 2017


My elegaic remarks about my books elicited a lovely array of responses.  Clearly, as I would have suspected, I am not alone.  When I retired and moved from a house to an apartment, I went through something of the thinning out process that David Auerbach describes.  I was about to get rid of one book until I noticed that it was a presentation copy from the author.  Whoops!  I hung on to it.

Carl, my son, Tobias Barrington Wolff, was indeed named for Barrington Moore.  Barry was his godfather, a fact that led to one of my favorite stories about Tobias when he was very little and still Toby.  His mother and I took him and his big brother, Patrick, to see Barry and Betty Moore at their Cambridge home.  When we got there, we discovered that Barry's closest friend, Herbert Marcuse, was staying with them.  Herbert had recently lost his wife and was rather lonely.  Barry had no idea at all what to do with a three year old [he had no children.]  All he could think to do by way of play was to talk German to to little Toby!  But Herbert was in his element.  He sat down on the floor, took a globe off a desk, and spun it around, pointing to one country after another.  Little Toby was enthralled.  When it came time to leave, we took the children out to the big old Chevy wagon parked at the curb.  Barry and Herbert came out to say goodbye.  As he was climbing into the back seat to be put in his car seat, Toby turned, looked up, waved his hand, and said "Bye, Herbie."  Marcuse was charmed.

Sunday, September 17, 2017


When I went off to Harvard in 1950, my parents and I had an agreement.  They would pay the tuition [$600] and the room and board [roughly the same, depending on which House you ended up in], and I would earn my pocket money by doing odd jobs.  I baby sat [and read Anatole France’s Penguin Island one evening], scrubbed floors, and twice a year inventoried the Robert Hall clothing store [a fabulous job that paid $1.25 an hour.]  I even sold hot dogs one Saturday at a Harvard football game, but since the concession was under the stands, I never actually saw a play.  I wanted to go down to New London to Connecticut College for Women to see Susie as often as I could, so I had precious little to spend on anything else. As a consequence, I never actually bought books in college.  I read them in Lamont Library and took notes.  One of the few books I acquired as an undergraduate was a handsome copy, two volumes in one, of Harry Austryn Wolfson’s magisterial work The Philosophy of Spinoza.  I read it in the library while taking his course my sophomore year, but that year I won the Detur Book Prize for getting good grades and chose Wolfson’s book as my reward.  Years later, I received a fund raising appeal from Harvard to support the Detur Fund, and even though I routinely threw away Harvard's endless appeals, I thought I owed them something and sent along a hundred dollars to the fund.  One result of this undergraduate poverty was that when I started to actually buy books, I grew quite fond of them.

By now, as you will imagine, I have acquired a goodly number of books.  Nothing like so many as some scholars, but enough to fill many running feet of floor to ceiling bookshelves. 

Here is a photo of one stretch of those shelves, to the left and behind my desk in my study.  This morning, I pushed back from my desk and swiveled to look idly at the shelves, and my eye fell on a three volume translation of a minor nineteenth century French novel, Les Mystères de Paris, by Eugene Sue.  This is one of the relatively few books in my collection that I have never actually read.  I bought it because Marx and Engels, in their hilarious juvenile work, The Holy Family, spend a good deal of time tearing it to pieces, and I thought I ought to own it.

Then I began to run my eyes over the shelves to spend some time visiting with old friends.  My favorite book of the entire collection is the stubby fat black-bound edition of Hume’s Treatise with Selby-Bigge’s indispensable and exhaustive notes.  I have a sensuous relationship with books, an antique passion that young people probably cannot comprehend.  The paper of Selby-Bigge’s Treatise is a light cream color with a slightly nubby feel to it.  I am an inveterate marginal commentator of the books I read and the pages of the Treatise absorb just enough of the ink to blur what I write ever so slightly.  My copy has been read and re-read, covered with red and black and blue underlinings and comments, until the binding has fallen off.  My first copy of the Kemp Smith translation of the Critique was a graduation present from my two undergraduate friends and fellow madrigalists, Richard Eder and Michael Jorrin, inscribed “Each even line from Dick, each odd line from Mike.”  When it too fell apart, I had it professionally re-bound, which preserved it but made it hard to open, so I bought a second copy.  When that fell apart, I replaced it with a paperback version, which survives intact.  The original copy is a living record of my struggles with that immortal work.  There are places where I have raised a mystified marginal doubt in one ink, next to which, in different ink, is written “Oh yes, I see now.”  After all these years, I have no idea either what my original puzzlement was or what the later enlightenment consisted in.

And so they march on, shelf after shelf.  Some are presentation copies, such as Barrington Moore’s great work, The Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy.  Others are beaten up second hand copies that I found in the recesses of bookstores, like my very own copy of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, which, according to the flyleaf notation, I bought in January, 1959.  The Index is the Catholic Church’s official list of books the faithful are not to read.  It is a fascinating document, heavily loaded up with obscure works of deviant theology in Italian that the Vatican priests would have known about.  The only English novel I could find listed is Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, I assume on the theory that if you list the first one, it follows recursively that all the others are included.  My copy came with a paperclipped page of addenda that did not make the edition.  The first item on that list is “Sartre, Jean Paul, Opera Omnia,” which pretty well takes care of him.

These are my friends, my oldest and best friends.  I do not visit them very often, but they are with me always and I know that should I grow lonely, they await me, quite forgiving of my lack of attention.