The economics of Rawlsian justice: can it be neoclassical?

Wylie Bradford (Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia)

International Journal of Social Economics

ISSN: 0306-8293

Publication date: 29 June 2012



The purpose of this paper is to explore the compatibility of Rawls's account of justice with neoclassical economic theory, upon which Rawls relies strongly.


This question is approached via a comparison of the implicit account of society and social relations adopted in Rawl's work with that that can be perceived to underly neoclassical economic theory. The purpose of this comparison is to assess how compatible these social visions are.


It is argued that neoclassical economic theory presupposes a social structure and a social reality that is radically less cooperative than that which underpins Rawls's theory of justice. Rawls presupposes a world in which cooperation is necessary – a specialised world – whereas the equilibrium requirements of neoclassical theory run into severe technical difficulties in such a context, with the result that they are assumed away via a series of theoretical contrivances, along with the role for cooperation that is central to Rawls's theory.

Research limitations/implications

The paper illustrates clearly the pitfalls associated with uncritical reliance in one discipline on theoretical frameworks imported from another. Where there is debate concerning the fundamental bases of theory, a form of sensitivity analysis must be performed to ensure that the final argument does not demand too much of, or become excessively tied to, the imported framework.


The paper provides the beginnings of such a sensitivity analysis on the Rawlsian project and its relationship to economic theory, and shows that the field is open for a reconstitution of the liberal theory of justice on grounds other than its traditional ally, the exchange paradigm as represented by neoclassical theory.



Bradford, W. (2012), "The economics of Rawlsian justice: can it be neoclassical?", International Journal of Social Economics, Vol. 39 No. 8, pp. 612-623.

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