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Philosophy & Public Affairs 31.1 (2003) 40-70

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"If You Don't Like It, Leave It":
The Problem of Exit in Social Contractarian Arguments

Barbara H. Fried

In A Theory of Justice, Rawls suggests that the talented would find it in their self-interest to sign on to his highly redistributive difference principle, because the resulting arrangement would still leave them better off than they would be with no social cooperation at all. 1 To make the argument persuasive, Nozick observed in rejoinder, Rawls had better explain why the talented would not demand the benefit of the even better deal they could strike by seceding with the other talented members of the larger social contractarian bargaining unit and heading off for some utopian Lucky Island. 2

Nozick's rejoinder is telling—if not for Rawls, whose egalitarian precommitments, reflected in his construction of the original position, preclude such a deal from the start—then for other left-liberal social contractarians hoping to deduce a redistributive welfarist state from rational self-interest. But it needs some explaining itself. Suppose that in any realistically constructed state of nature (SON), the talented would never actually make it to Lucky Island. Suppose, for example, that collective action problems would make it almost impossible to negotiate secession. Or suppose that the talented have high sunk costs (in affectional [End Page 40] and economic ties) in their existing SON society that make secession unattractive; or that there is no Lucky Island left to go to at the time the social contractarian bargain is imagined to take place; or that the costs of creating a rival social organization from scratch on Lucky Island are prohibitively great. Suppose, as a result, that Nozick's lucky band of the talented cannot credibly threaten to secede from whatever social contractarian bargaining unit they find themselves in, in order to form their own rival society on Lucky Island. Are we still required to abide by the distributive results the talented could have obtained for themselves had they been able to get costlessly to Lucky Island, even though they cannot? To put it another way, why don't we treat the actual social unavailability of exit as a given limitation on endowments, akin to lesser talents? If (in the Nozickean view) poorly endowed members of any society are stuck with their natural endowments because they are a given social fact, why are the talented not stuck with the impossibility of exit, because it is likewise a given social fact?

This article is an attempt to explore these and related questions. The narrow question it poses is: Why is the statement "If you don't like it, leave it" not a morally adequate response to the complaints of, say, the wealthy in America circa 2002 that their society is overtaxing them to aid the poor? The broader question it explores is how exit options are constructed in social contractarian (SC) arguments that seek to justify (as the instantiation of prudent rationality, justice, political legitimacy, and so forth) a particular division of the social surplus generated by political cooperation.

For purposes of this article, "exit options" refers to all alternative arrangements that are available to negotiators in the event they fail to reach agreement with their co-bargainers. That would obviously include the "nonagreement point": in SC bargains, anarchy. It would include as well alternative social contracts that negotiators might enter into if they secede from their current bargaining unit and join forces with a different group of bargainers.

The exit options that the hypothetical parties to a social contract are endowed with are, of course, critical to the hypothetical outcome of their negotiations. In standard game theoretic analyses, the possible solutions (the "core") to the problem of dividing social surplus are taken to include all allocations that give each player in the cooperative game a payoff at least as great as the greater of (1) what she could have secured [End Page 41] through a noncooperative strategy, and (2) what she could have achieved as a...


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pp. 40-70
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Archived 2003
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