Rawls & Disability

John Rawls’ principal aim was to design a perfect liberalism. In doing so, he undermined liberalism in many ways, and in one particular area he failed to even protect interest groups directly with his philosophy. The prejudice experienced by people with disabilities is like high school prejudice well into adulthood. The average adult would never consider letting a Down Syndrome person into their clique. John Rawls is good against Ben Tillman but fails miserably against Regina George. You’re not talked to in the break room, not invited to parties, and high school never ends. Racial minorities, sexual minorities, gender minorities, may be second-class citizens in some ways but they are first-class citizens on their own turf while the disabled are second-class citizens on all turf.

Rawls is the Robert Moses of political philosophy. Robert Moses was the urban planer notorious for inventing most of the soccer mom suburbia which came to purvey the American landscape in the late 20th century. Replacing community, character, and culture with individualism and cheap consumerism. Rawls was basically Locke but stripped down to the skeleton which, while it doesn’t have much, emphasizes individualism with no attention paid to community. It’s all rights and no responsibilities. While looking after your neighbors is praiseworthy, it isn’t expected that neighbors look after one another. That’s what the state or the market is for. The community no longer, meaningfully, exists and whether the institution is public or private, it is a Weberian bureaucracy.

This rhymes with Foucault but Foucault believed the aim of institutionalizing the different was to concentrate and gain power for the ruling class rather than the more mundane but more tragic truth that people were too lazy to commit the sacrifices needed to care for their more needy compatriots and gave the disabled up to the orphanage of the institutions. The results are many but are most succinctly exhibited in the scariest thing to come out of Transylvania since vampires went soft and cuddly: communist orphanages. The dictator of communist Romania in the 1960s, for economic reasons, outlawed abortion to increase population and opened ill-staffed, cheaply-run, collectivized orphanages to raise all unwanted children. Unfortunately for said dictator, these children came of age right when the Eastern Bloc stopped being communist and right when he and his wife were shot dead by revolutionaries so it isn’t known whether the program would have increased Romania’s GDP. It did run long enough to know how being raised in extreme neglect until mid-adolescence did to people.

Working in a communist factory may not require much brain power and is possibly simple enough that, regardless of how bad the system’s results were, they would have accomplished the single myopic economic goal of the program. It is stereotypically Soviet, to use sheer scale to overcome all shortcomings. It is not finesse or strategy that won Stalingrad for Stalin, it was how the Persians won Thermopile. While the Spartans and the Nazis had tactics, at a certain point, size beats everything else. Now matter how refined one’s R&D or tech sectors are, twenty million factory workers will ultimately outcompete them. If Goliath were not nine feet tall but fifty feet tall, David would have required a miracle even the most strident atheist couldn’t assign to luck.

The results of the Romanian program were catastrophic but were, arguably, run according to Rawlsian principals if the children were treated equally and had their lowest step on Maslow’s Pyramid met. Rawls does not promise love or community but three-squares-per-day and equality before the law. The problem with institutionalization of misfits is not that it creates a Marxist nightmare of inequality of power and wealth like Foucault argued but that it destroys anyone who is rejected because nothing above their lowest step on Maslow’s Pyramid is satisfied. Rawls, unlike Foucault, lived to see Romania become a capitalist democracy and the files on the program released but likely wasn’t paying attention because he was a political scientist and not a psychologist or a Romanian. It was big enough for, probably, a single news cycle in the early 1990s in America after which only psychologists and Romanians cared about it. He definitely knew about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and whether he realized that his system depriving the higher levels of those to a large portion of the population might defeat the aim of being fair to all minorities can never be known since he died in 2002.

Also, unlike Foucault’s version, it is not institutionalization, per se, that is the problem but abandonment to the institution by people and society, generally, too selfish and lazy to be terribly altruistic. If the disabled had a healthy social life and outpatient care then the institutionalization would not be a problem. It is often complained that the police are the primary mental health intervention institution. Yeah, but the solution those people propose is to use mental health institutions way more than giving laypeople basic mental health training and trying to integrate people with mental health issues which would satisfy the higher Maslow’s Needs and reduce the severity of whatever they had. The disabled require an informal support network to be healthy, more than a formal one, and Rawls’ philosophy says that people have all rights and no responsibilities upon which platform no community may be built since community requires mutual aid and sacrifice. Not in the form of taxes so much but time, energy, love, and effort.

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