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Arguing about justice

Axel Gosseries
Philippe Vanderborght

Linguistic protectionism and wealth maximinimization

Andrew Williams


Imaginem que un estat ha d'escollir entre fer que els seus membres menys rics siguin el més rics possible i protegir una llengua determinada com a mitjà primari de comunicació a la vida pública. Si es donés aquest cas, es trobaria l'estat en qüestió davant d'una eleccio entre deures morals en conflicte? Aquest article explora dues formes diferents de donar prioritat els interessos econòmics dels membres menys avantatjats de la societat que proporcionen respostes també diverses a aquest interrogant.

Note de l’auteur

Note portant sur l'auteur1

Texte intégral

  • 1 1848, Principles of Political Economy, Book IV, ch. VI, sec. 2, p. 127

...the best state for human nature is that in which, while no one is poor, no one desires to be richer, nor has any reason to fear being thrust back by the efforts of others to push themselves forward... I know not why it should be a matter of congratulation that persons who are already richer than anyone needs to be, should have doubled their means of consuming things which give little or no pleasure except as representative of wealth...
John Stuart Mill1

1Many states have an established language, which they deliberately protect from competitor languages in order to ensure that the favoured tongue is widely shared amongst citizens and enjoys primacy in their common life. A range of public policies are available to secure such protection, such as requiring that publicly funded services, including children’s education, be provided largely via the established language. Unfortunately, however, when only a small minority of humanity speaks the established language, and it competes with an emerging lingua franca originating from wealthier states, the economic costs of linguistic protection are likely to exceed those of a less protectionist regime. This might be true for various reasons including the greater difficulty for firms to induce highly skilled foreign workers to relocate to protectionist regimes, and the lower economies of scale involved in teaching a minority language.

2Suppose then that a society’s members face a choice between protecting some cherished language and maximally promoting their own income and wealth, or ’wealth’ for reasons of brevity. How are the reasons governing such a choice best understood?

3In this too brief foray into the political morality of language policy, I shall address just one aspect of a complex and important topic. More specifically, I shall examine whether the choice between linguistic protection and wealth promotion involves weighty conflicting requirements or whether a more harmonious interpretation of those concerns is available. In addressing the issue, I shall assume that at least under some conditions there are sound reasons to use political means to protect an established language. My concern focuses instead on wealth promotion and with whether that goal is a countervailing requirement that conflicts with any reasons for linguistic protection.

Two conceptions of priority to the least advantaged

4To address the issue I shall consider just two types of principle governing the distribution of income and wealth. Both are types of non-aggregative principle that deny maximizing the sum of wealth is of value and instead assume that what matters is the distribution of wealth across individuals. Both types of principle also attach priority to the interests of the less advantaged when resolving conflicts of interest between individuals. What I shall term maximinimizing principles favour making individuals wealthier, and when conflicts of interest arise such principles attach priority to individuals who have less rather than more wealth. In contrast, non-maximinimizing egalitarian principles endorse no such requirement but merely prohibit increasing inequality in ways detrimental to the least advantaged. The latter principles ground a complaint only against decisions that expand inequality at the expense of the least wealthy; they ground no complaint against policies that fail to make them as wealthy as possible.

5For illustration, it may be helpful to note how, at different points, John Rawls appears to affirm both types of principle.

6Stating the core requirement of his famous difference principle in Justice as Fairness: a Restatement, Rawls (2001: 42-43) writes that ’social and economic inequalities...are to be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged.’ Rawls (2001: 59-60) later explains that to

... say that inequalities in income and wealth are to be arranged for the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society simply means that we are to compare schemes of cooperation by seeing how well off the least advantaged are under each scheme, and then select the scheme under which the least advantaged are better off than they are under any other scheme.

7In interpreting these statements, we should note that the difference principle expresses a defeasible requirement that it is permissible to infringe when it conflicts with the more stringent requirements to protect basic civil liberties, including the fair value of rights to political participation and to secure fairness in the competition for a society’s positions of authority and influence. We should also recall that Rawls is sensitive to the possibility that sufficiently large economic inequalities can undermine the social bases of self-respect by threatening citizens’ possession of a "lively sense of their worth as persons" and ability "to advance their ends with self-confidence" (Rawls 2001: 59). Furthermore, he believes that the plausibility of a distributive principle diminishes if it permits economic inequalities that generate various antagonistic attitudes, including excusable forms of envy, which jeopardise the principle’s capacity to generate its own support when institutionalized.

8Setting aside these complications about conflicts with more stringent liberal egalitarian principles and the risk of inequality-generating wealth-maximinimization having undesirable consequences for self-respect and stability, suppose (very unrealistically) that they never materialize. If so, Rawls’s recommendation that institutional designers "select the scheme under which the least advantaged are better off than they are under any other scheme" affirms wealth maximinimization as a demand of justice. If the demand is sound, then there is a stringent moral requirement to choose social institutions that maximally promote the economic expectations of the least advantaged.

9Whilst the content of such a maximinimizing requirement needs some refinement to demarcate the least advantaged group and deal with the absence of "close-knit" expectations (Rawls 1999: 70-72; 81-86), it represents the most common interpretation of the difference principle, and the one most frequently apparent in Rawls’s texts. Nevertheless, a quite different non-maximinimizing egalitarian requirement does occasionally make an appearance.

10One such appearance occurs when Rawls explains the intuitive appeal of the difference principle by comparing the arrangement of expectations in a perfectly just distributive scheme with that in a scheme that is a just throughout but not perfectly just. Describing the two types of scheme in A Theory of Justice, Rawls (1999: 68) writes

The first case is that in which the expectations of the least advantaged are indeed maximized... No changes in the expectations of those better off can improve the situation of those worst off. The best arrangement obtains, what I shall call a perfectly just scheme. The second case is that in which the expectations of al those better off at least contribute to the welfare of the more unfortunate. That is, if their expectations were decreased, the prospects of the least fortunate would likewise fall. Yet the maximum is not yet achieved. Even higher expectations for the more advantaged would raise the expectations of those in the lower position. Such a scheme is, I shall say, just throughout, but not the best just arrangement. A scheme is unjust when the higher expectations, one of more of them, are excessive. If these expectations were decreased, the situation of the least favored would be improved.

11Here Rawls’s description of the two schemes relies on the contrast between a wealth maximinimizing requirement and a non-maximinimizing requirement that merely prohibits increases in inequality detrimental to the least advantaged but does not require any particular level of inequality or wealth promotion. To be perfectly just a scheme must satisfy both requirements but to be just throughout a scheme need only satisfy the second less restrictive requirement.

12Having drawn these distinctions, Rawls then suggests that it is more important for a scheme to meet the non-maximinimizing requirement and be just throughout than to meet the maximinimizing requirement and be perfectly just. He also implies that the plausibility of the difference principle stems in part from its condemning expansions in inequality detrimental to the least advantaged, and so meeting the second requirement. Thus, referring to the difference principle under the label ’democratic equality’, Rawls (1999: 68) writes that

... while the difference principle is, strictly speaking, a maximizing principle, there is a significant difference between the cases that fall short of the best [i.e. maximinimizing] arrangement. A society should try to avoid situations where the marginal contributions of those better off are negative [i.e. detrimental to the less advantaged], since, other things equal, this seems a greater fault than falling short of the best scheme when those contributions are positive [i.e. beneficial to the less advantaged]. The even larger difference between classes [i.e. the difference arising when increased inequality becomes detrimental to the less advantaged] violates...democratic equality.

13Rawls returns at several points in A Theory of Justice (1999: 89 – 90) and Justice as Fairness: A Restatement (2001: 62, 64) to make similar remarks, emphasizing that one of the difference principle’s main virtues is that it satisfies a requirement to avoid inequalities in wealth detrimental to the less advantaged, and so secures a valuable form of harmony or reciprocity.

14To summarise, then, Rawls’s statements suggest that there are at least two ways to attach priority to the economic interests of the less advantaged. We might affirm a more restrictive maximinimizing requirement that, like his difference principle, favours making the least advantaged as wealthy as possible or a less restrictive non-maximizing requirement that does not favour any specific level of wealth maximization but merely prohibits increasing inequality in ways to detrimental to the least advantaged.

Why protectionists should renounce maximinimizing requirements

15Returning now to our initial question, how does this distinction between two types of distributive principle suggest we should understand the above choice between costly protections for some threatened language and the maximal promotion of wealth?

16Whilst the maximinimizing and non-maximinimizing principles both converge in focussing our concern primarily on the interests of the least wealthy there is a clear difference in how they suggest we should understand the choice. If we assume there are reasons to protect the language whilst also affirming the wealth maximinimizing requirement then we must understand the choice as one involving conflicting reasons for political action. Suppose this conflictual understanding is sound. Those who hope to justify a protectionist regime must then establish not only that there are some reasons to protect the threatened language but also a requirement to do so that is at least as stringent as the maximinimizing requirement. If instead we affirm only the non-maximinimizing egalitarian requirement then we need not assume there is any reason whatsoever to maximize the wealth of any group, even the least advantaged. We consequently can avoid the need to show that the reasons favouring linguistic protection are undefeated by countervailing considerations that favour wealth maximinimization. As a result, if only the non-maximinimizing principle is sound then it is less difficult to justify a protectionist regime.

17To assess the prospects of justified linguistic protectionism, then, it is worth addressing at least two questions. We need to decide whether there are grounds to reject the more restrictive maximinimizing principle and rely only on the less restrictive non-maximinimizing principle. If we fail to find such grounds and retain the maximinimizing principle, we also need to decide whether there is a sufficiently weighty case for protectionism that the requirement to protect the mother tongue defeats any requirement to make the least fortunate as wealthy as possible, or at least remains undefeated by the latter rival requirement.

18It is well beyond my powers to provide adequate arguments that answer to these hard questions but it may still be useful to venture some hesitant opinions.

19Addressing the questions in reverse order, it is worth distinguishing partial-compliance arguments for protectionism that respond to past wrongdoing from full-compliance arguments that do not respond to any wrongdoing but instead appeal to the personal or the impersonal value of language. For illustration via anecdote consider my grandfather, Tommy, and his younger siblings, Davey and Myfanwy, who were born in Swansea, an industrial town in south Wales, at the start of the last century. As children they were beaten by their teachers for speaking their native language, Welsh, in the school playground. In later life, they agreed that the extinction of Welsh would be bad, and supported measures to preserve the language, including speaking it themselves and with others from their generation. But Tommy, unlike his more nationalist and pious chapel-attending siblings, gave no indication that the displacement of Welsh as the primary means of communication was in itself a threat to his dignity, and welcomed his son and my father, Lynn, being taught English as his primary language because of what Tommy then believed were the economic advantages of doing so.

20My conjecture is that if Tommy were still alive then he would think that past wrongdoing and the impersonal value of Welsh give us reasons to prevent its extinction. I suspect, however, that on reflection he would deny that there is a very weighty requirement of justice to secure a language’s primacy when threatened by cleanly generated displacement, arising from individuals exercising their basic liberties against a fair background distribution of wealth. Moreover, even if he granted such a requirement, I suspect he would deny that it was of sufficient stringency that, like the requirements to protect basic liberties and equality of opportunity, it defeats a conflicting valid requirement to maximinimize wealth. I am unaware of any arguments that would make me reject my grandfather’s view. As a result, I worry that in the absence of rights violations and distributive injustice in the historical background the justice-based case for linguistic protection will fail if we must grant the wealth maximinimizing requirement, and consequently view the requirement to protect the primacy of a language as conflicting with the appropriate construal of priority to the less advantaged. Of course, this worry may just indicate my ignorance of the range of arguments for protectionism rather than any weakness in the case supporting such a policy, a deficiency I hope to correct by studying the forthcoming Van Parijs (2011).

21Closing on a note more optimistic about the prospects for protectionism, it seems to me that when we turn to the first question we should conclude that the maximinimizing requirement is far from unassailable. Here Rawls’s reference to a prohibition on inequalities detrimental to the less advantaged appears to explain the appeal of the difference principle to a very large degree. Having eliminated such inequalities, the further argument for maximizing the expectations of the least advantaged, as the difference principle officially demands, seems much less persuasive once we realize that it uses the currency of wealth rather than well-being or preference satisfaction. Such a currency may well be the appropriate basis on which to formulate a egalitarian principle but it is less obvious that a political community has even defeasible reasons to promote wealth maximally, especially when so few of it members pursue such a goal in their own lives. Having guaranteed a decent social minimum, and eliminated economic inequalities detrimental to the less advantaged, it might instead be more plausible for the society to rely on a preference-based paretian principle, at least assuming there are sound anti-perfectionist reasons to refrain from appeal to sound but sectarian judgments of well-being when engaged in political activity.

22Perhaps, then, eschewing the maximinimizing requirement and relying only on the less restrictive non-maximinimizing requirement, thereby producing a more harmonious account of the relationship between the values of distributive justice and linguistic protection, is an option worth considering more fully.


23Returning finally to John Stuart Mill, it is worth recalling that Rawls became convinced that Mill’s stationary state economy, to which my opening quotation alludes, is a reasonable option, and appealed to the non-maximinimizing requirement in an attempt to show how the difference principle can accommodate that conviction. Thus, in Justice as Fairness: a Restatement, Rawls (2001: 63 – 64) writes that

A further feature of the difference principle is that it does not require continual economic growth over generations to maximize upward indefinitely the expectations of the least advantaged (assessed in terms of income and wealth). That would not be a reasonable conception of justice. We should not rule out Mill’s idea of a society in a just stationary state where (real) capital accumulation may cease. A well-ordered society is specified so as to allow for this possibility.

What the difference principle does require is that during an appropriate internal of time the differences in income and wealth earned in producing the social product be such that if the legitimate expectations of the more advantaged were less, those of the less advantaged would also be less...Permissible inequalities (thus defined) satisfy that condition and are compatible with a social product of a steady-state equilibrium in which a just basic structure is supported and reproduced over time. (cp. Rawls 1975: 545; Pogge 1989: 197)

24Assuming the difference principle satisfies the maximinimizing requirement, as Rawls expressly states elsewhere, as well as the non-maximinimizing principle, to which he appeals here, it is puzzling to me why that principle does not favour economic growth within generations, and thus also across generations, assuming such gains will not always be lost. If the difference principle does have this implausible implication, then in order to accommodate the stationary state as an eligible option perhaps Rawls needs not merely to affirm the non-maximinimizing principle but to explicitly eschew the maximinimizing principle. Mill’s wise remarks about the stationary state, therefore, may provide some indirect support for the case for linguistic protectionism by supplying additional grounds to doubt that wealth maximinimization is a sound countervailing consideration.

25In a world like ours where the misuse of arguments for wealth promotion has lead to a consumption arms race and the unprecedented human destruction of nature, it is very tempting to conclude that linguistic patriots should unite under a red and green banner declaring a resounding ”Non!” to the maximinimization of wealth.



MILL, J. S. (1994), Principles of Political Economy and Chapters on Socialism, ed. Jonathan Riley, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

POGGE, Th. (1989), Realizing Rawls, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

RAWLS, J. (1975), 'Fairness to Goodness', Philosophical Review, 84 (4): 536-554.

RAWLS, J. (1999), A Theory of Justice, Revised Edition, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

RAWLS, J. (2001), Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

VAN PARIJS, Ph. (2011), Linguistic Justice for Europe and for the World, Oxford: Oxford University Press.


1 1848, Principles of Political Economy, Book IV, ch. VI, sec. 2, p. 127

Notes de fin

1 It is a great pleasure that this paper helps in celebrating the birthday of Philippe Van Parijs, whose personality and work have inspired me so often since I first encountered them in 1989. For instructive discussion related to the paper, I am very grateful to Paula Casal, Matthew Clayton, Axel Gosseries, Jose Luis Marti, and Peter Vallentyne. Experience suggests the paper would also have greatly benefitted from discussion with Philippe but, alas, that might have spoiled the surprise.

© Presses universitaires de Louvain, 2011

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