Rawls, Bailey, Alterman, Progressive Taxation, and the Veil of Ignorance

I gave three takes on Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance here. The concept actually takes thinkers pretty far in terms of evaluating a number of social issues. Is Slavery moral? Circa 1860, if you were going to be placed into a random position in society, you would have about a 10% chance (based on some numbers here) of being a slave. Because virtually everyone would find those odds unacceptable, thinkers operating behind the view of ignorance would reject the institution of slavery. Rawls argues that the people in the original position, behind the veil, would come up with just institutions and practices; because slavery would be rejected from behind the veil, it is therefore unjust. Here’s a pretty easy one to try for yourself: the Taliban system in Afghanistan, circa late 1990s (you have about a 50% chance of being a woman).

Thought processes like these lead to Rawls’ first Principle 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”. The logic is straightforward and compelling: from behind the veil, you could end up starting anywhere in society; your rights and freedoms should not depend on where you start. But what if we could harm a very small part of society and thereby make everyone else much better off? Rawls would reject this because it would not be “compatible with a similar scheme of liberties of all”. Note that this first principle is basically an equality of opportunity principle—let all start in the same position and each then act in their own interest, letting the cards fall where they may. Alterman writes that thinkers behind the veil would create a social structure that is “equally fair if judged by the person at the bottom as well as the top; 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.” Upon inspection, this statement is a bit ambiguous.

I doubt that more than a handful of nuts would consider the idea that the CEO and the cleaner of toilets should have the same rights, in the sense of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, utopian. This concept is on the (likely very short) list of things you could get Glenn Reynolds, Atrios, and my grandmother to agree upon. So this reads like Alterman is not just making a statement about liberties, but also about outcomes and income distribution. This is also what The West Wing’s Will Bailey was talking about in the scene I described here.

This redistributive line of reasoning derives from Rawls’ second Principle of Justice (sometimes called “The Difference Principle”:

(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”

So, for example, it’s ok that doctors make a lot more than cleaners of toilets, because this inequality leads more people into medicine, and they then help people, including the “least advantaged members of society”. But Rawls took this much farther and went on to argue strongly in favor income redistribution. This is the “maxi-min” principle: designers operating behind the veil of ignorance would construct a society to maximize the minimum level of welfare in society. While redistributing income downwards does not necessarily lower average income (think of schools and roads), assume for the moment that it does (it surely does after some point). How much income should we redistribute? Rawls argued that we should continue to redistribute income up to the point where it no longer improves the well-being of the least advantaged members of society.

So Will Bailey’s proposal to increase the marginal tax rate on the “Uber-Wealthy” from 36% to 37% (to finance college tuition tax credits) is, while Rawlsian in spirit, well short of what Rawls would advocate. Still, as a response to the intern’s question, it does pretty well. Alterman’s “equally fair if judged by the person at the bottom as well as the top; the CEO as well as the guy who cleans the toilets” formulation seems much closer to Rawls’ vision.

The open question is whether people behind the Veil of Ignorance really would choose to structure society in a way to maximize the minimum of well-being. This is a strong statement that is premised on an extremely high degree of risk-aversion in the population—mightn’t people accept a bit of a reduction in the income of the least among us if that risk were accompanied by an increased chance of higher wealth?

More to come, but not much more. Writing on Rawls is much tougher than, say, pointing out that Michael Savage is a jackass.


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