Rawls starts out with a position of equal distribution of all primary goods. Then he allows those inequalities that would, in addition to benefiting the talented, will also benefit the worst-off. But notice: it is impossible to identify the worst-off or, for that matter, the better-off, outside the free market system in which people’s powers and talents and virtues can in fact be manifested. It is only when we have a laissez-faire economy that a stratification of society based on people’s incomes can occur and the worst-off be pointed out to us. Only by empirical testing, via observing the actual consequences of numerous self-interested human actions, can we rank people in terms of their well-being. Only then do Cohen et al become able to say: this situation is unacceptable, and the better-off — John and Bill — must be looted for the sake of the worst-off — Mark and Sam.
In other words, it is only the rigors of the free market that can separate those whose services are valued and compensated from those who invest poorly. Before a person can be labeled “worst-off,” he must first try to succeed, and only if he fails again and again does this label become appropriate. But this trying and testing oneself can only occur in the market. The abolition of the market which the socialist egalitarians envision would destroy the very mechanism which the difference principle requires in order to do its job.
But the world is in constant flux. Everything changes, including people themselves. Everyone wins some and loses some to various extents. And, of course, as soon as we equalize things, a new generation of people will present the difficulty just outlined. So, who are the worst-off and how do we tell them apart from the more fortunate in life’s lottery?