Three Takes on “The Veil of Ignorance”

Preface: I don’t entirely agree with Rawls’ conclusions, but this is surely true: only a few people in this world are truly irreplaceable, John Rawls was one such person; read one obituary here.

The Three Takes:

  1. The West Wing.

    In the first scene, Will Bailey (the character that replaces Rob Lowe’s character) presents three hypothetical tax-payers: A box unloader at minimum wage (taxed at 15%), a teacher at $41.7k (taxed at 28%), a doctor making $150k (taxed at 36%); later, he adds a fourth box for the “Uber-Wealthy” CEO making $16 million. Will’s plan (and the Bartlett administration’s) is to raise the rate on the CEO by 1 percentage point (to 37%) to finance a tax deduction for college tuition for people making less than $80k/year.

    An intern (qua speechwriter) quips that “the doctor got into medical school, he had to work hard to do that. And presumably the CEO has some skills, the value of which the market has place at 16 million dollars”. Initially, Will replies glibly.

    Later in the show Will says to the same intern “the answer to your question of why the MD should accept a greater tax burden in spite of the fact that his success is well-earned is called the Veil of Ignorance. Imagine that before you are born you don’t know anything about who you’ll be, your abilities, or your position. Now design a tax system.” The intern replies “the Veil of Ignorance”. Will replies “John Rawls”.

  2. Eric Alterman (What Liberal Media, p. 19):

    “Contemporary intellectual definitions of liberalism derive by common accord from the work of the political theorist John Rawls. The key concept upon which Rawls bases his definition is what he terms the “veil of ignorance”; the kind of social compact based on a structure that would be drawn up by a person who has no idea where he or she fits into it. In other words, such a structure would be equally fair if judged by the person at the bottom as well as the top [emphasis mine]; the CEO as well as the guy who cleans the toilets. In real-world American politics, this proposition would be considered so utopian as to be laughable.”

  3. John Rawls:

    In “Social Unity and Primary Goods”, section II, paragraph 1, Rawls describes two “Principles of Justice”

    (i) “Each person has an equal right to the most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar scheme of liberties of all”

    (ii) “Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: they must be

    (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society; and
    (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity”

    In his book, A Theory of Justice, Rawls asks us to imagine ourselves behind a veil of ignorance. I’m skipping over much material of consequence, but Rawls concludes that from such an original position–having the ability to structure society, but not knowing where in that structure we might fall–rational people would, perforce, design a “fair” society, and that society would be as consistent as possible with the two principles of justice.

More to come.


P.S. I’m posting this before I read more than the beginning of it, but Salon has a feature on “All conservative, all the time: It’s time to bury the myth of the ‘liberal media’ “writes Eric Alterman in his new book. How can progressives find their voice?“. While I’m about to disagree somewhat with Alterman’s take on the Veil of Ignorance, I must reiterate: buy and read his book.