I always thought the Rawlsian minimax principle was rather odd. Recall that John Rawls once argued that public policies should be implemented if and only if they improved the welfare of those who are worst off in society. I came up with all sorts of bizarre counterexamples, like what if a public policy massively improved the welfare of the top 99%, but slightly reduced it for the bottom one percent. Say it made them $2 worse off. At the time, I never thought my silly thought experiment would ever show up in the data. Until today. I found this graph at Matt Yglesias’ blog:
Yglesias argues that this graph shows that the British public did better under the Labour party than under the Conservatives. He bases that claim on the fact that most of those in the bottom half did better. I have no problem with that argument; it’s based on solid utilitarian reasoning.
As an aside, I still think the Conservatives did more to improve Britain. They inherited a country going down the tubes, and made some very painful decisions to shut down a lot of uncompetitive manufacturing and mining. The made the economy more efficient. They ended double digit inflation. These reforms hurt various sectors of the public, but were needed in the long run. In contrast, Labour inherited an economy in very good shape, and left a fiscal train wreck when they left office in 2010. And a bad recession. Notice the data only goes up to 2008—let’s see how it looks in 2 years when we have the full data showing the Labour government’s entire term in office.
But I digress. My main argument here is that Yglesias is quite rightly ignoring Rawls’ silly maximin principle. The poorest of the poor didn’t do well under the Conservatives (losing about 0.2%), but they did even worse under Labour, losing 1.1%. Rawls would clearly vote Conservative, but for the wrong reason.
If I thought this graph actually captured all the effects of government policy, I’d probably vote Labour. But as I said, my hunch is that Labour was dealt a somewhat better hand. And I think their record will look worse when extended up to 2010.