I’m a big fan of Russ Roberts and Econtalk and last night I was listening to a conversation he had with David Shmidtz (probably misspelled his name) regarding various theories of justice, primarily revolving around the works of Nozick and Rawls. I’m not that interested in philosophy, especially political philosophy, but I found a comment made by Shmidtz to be truly bizarre. Specifically, he claimed that Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” was the “most provocative idea of the 20th century.”
Now, I am by no means any kind of expert on Rawls’ work nor do I want to spend too much time on this theoretical construct. In short, it asks that we imagine a situation where we had the power to determine the structure of society and the institutions that comprise it before the fact. We must make this decision in the absence of the facts. We have no information regarding the traits that we will possess, both innate and acquired, nor the position in the social division of labor that we will find ourselves in. In this position, would we prefer a truly egalitarian society (in the social democratic sense) or one where risk, innovation and talent are rewarded (capitalism).
Apparently this and the fact that most individual’s are risk-averse somehow proves that the welfare-state is “fair,” and that this way of framing the situation is preferable because it yields entirely impartial judgments. Starting with the facts, I guess, is unreliable because various interests are necessarily jeopardized, making impartial and critical analysis implausible.
Now it seems fairly obvious that this entire argument falls apart once it’s understood that though it is true one must necessarily be impartial in a state of this sort of ignorance, it doesn’t necessarily follow that one must be biased when presented with the facts. The facts regarding your future condition may indeed influence it but they don’t necessarily need to cloud your judgment/make you prejudice (drawing conclusions that are made in the absence of reason and/or experience).
If Rawls were correct then every talented and successful individual should support capitalism and every untalented, unsuccessful person should oppose it. Again, there are countless individuals who are relatively near each other in the social division of labor and who completely disagree on what society should look like and how it should function/be organized. They’re all working with the facts though the reasoning employed in their arguments may be either sound or unsound. In other words, their decisions and conclusions are not biased (though I don’t assert that this is necessarily true for everyone). I do not believe that we're all just irrational rent-seekers.
Rawls would have to make an argument proving that decision-making in a state of partial ignorance, as opposed to a state of absolute ignorance, must necessarily yield biased results. If he has done this, please share it. Once we understand that impartiality and 'possession of the facts' (for lack of a better term) is not mutually exclusive then there seems to be no logical reason to prefer decision-making under this sort uncertainty. I mean, information is valuable when making decisions precisely because they yield efficient action. It highlights which means (of which there are potentially thousands available at any given moment) will yield the desired ends so that action is fruitful in the first place.
Furthermore, the whole idea that individual’s are so risk-averse that the vast majority of them would prefer an egalitarian society that retards general growth seems completely implausible to me. Even If I were aware of the fact that I will be born with absolutely no talent, in a system that rewards talent, I would still prefer that system if I understand that it would facilitate such talents, yielding residual effects that would benefit me and elevate my condition. So I would have to dismiss basic economic theory, of which there is torrential historical and theoretical support, in order to support the normative conclusion that many individuals draw from this theoretical construct (namely that the social-welfare state is fair and that people would only support a competitive system like capitalism because of bias).
Have I misunderstood Rawls? Is my reasoning faulty? I fail to see how this is the “most provocative idea of the 20th century.” It seems rather ridiculous to me precisely because it asks us to ignore so much (which is what is supposed to make it so powerful in the first place).
"If we wish to preserve a free society, it is
essential that we recognize that the desirability of a particular
object is not sufficient justification for the use of coercion."
No, you're correct - the whole thing is ridiculous. Anthony de Jasay writes on the topic extensively. For Rawls' conclusions to make sense, his 'veil of ignorance' must extend to a complete ignorance of economics. The fact of the matter is that there is a much greater amount of 'guaranteed' wealth in a free society than there is in a socialistic society.
I am also no expert on Rawls so far. However everything I have heard and read was exactly about what you have described. And the problem really is what Aristippus says. Rawl's thought experiment assumes that in an egalitarian and capitalistic society would be the same amount of wealth, with the only difference of how it was spread. In so far as this implication was true, I would agree. Why should any person get a better living standard, if in total it makes absolutely no difference? Then there really is nothing to reward because wealth is there, no matter how we structure society, not matter how or what someone achieves. However that is of course only a wet dream.
The answer is clear since I believe that at least 99,5% of the people will have a better life in capitalism than in a perfectly egalitarian society, no matter how poor they are relatively to the so called rich.