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Rawls and Knight: Connections and Influence in A Theory of Justice


Rawls, most visibly in A Theory of Justice, made numerous references to various topics in economics, and footnoted a significant number of economists. This paper will argue that Rawls made use of the ideal theory of markets as a reference point and as an analytical tool. In their ideal form, markets represent attributes Rawls intended to describe his system, and in their real-world guise embody certain sorts of striving – for instance, after power – that were central to Rawls’s justification of the original position. Markets also serve in Theory as a benchmark against which political forms can be criticized. Additionally, markets in Theory are approved of as allocative and wealth-producing mechanisms, but criticized for their final distributional results. The paper suggests that these assessments in Rawls likely originate in early essays by economist Frank Knight. Knight was, according to Pogge, the probable source for an early version of Rawls’s original position, and is footnoted in key spots in Theory. But the similarities between Knight’s reasoning and Rawls’s appear more significant still. Using Rawls’s extensively annotated copy of Knight’s Ethics of Competition, that supposition is explored.




I would like to thank Erik Angner, Ross Emmett, and the editors of RHETM for helpful comments on earlier drafts of this paper. A previous version of this paper was presented in 2015 at the University of Richmond, at the Summer Institute for the Preservation of the History of Economic Thought. I would like to thank the participants for their feedback. I should especially note David Levy’s (at George Mason University) generosity in making available the scans of Rawls’s copy of Knight’s The Ethics of Competition and Other Essays, and for accompanying encouragement. A photostat of the index from Rawls’s copy of The Ethics of Competition and other essays can be found in Levy and Peart, Towards an Economics of Natural Equals: A Documentary History of the Early Virginia School (2020, pp. 262–263), and the index and a text page from Ethics are reproduced in two appendices at the end of this paper.


Coker, D. (2021), "Rawls and Knight: Connections and Influence in A Theory of Justice", Fiorito, L., Scheall, S. and Suprinyak, C.E. (Ed.) Research in the History of Economic Thought and Methodology: Including a Symposium on Frank Knight's Risk, Uncertainty and Profit at 100 (Research in the History of Economic Thought and Methodology, Vol. 39C), Emerald Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 77-98.



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