I absolutely love this Op-Ed piece in the NY Times by Benjamin Hale.
The idea behind the veil of ignorance is relatively simple: to force us to think outside of our parochial personal concerns in order that we consider others. What Rawls saw clearly is that it is not easy for us to put ourselves in the position of others. We tend to think about others always from our own personal vantage; we tend to equate another person’s predicament with our own. Imagining what it must be like to be poor, for instance, we import presumptions about available resources, talents and opportunities — encouraging, say, the homeless to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and to just get a job, any job, as if getting a job is as simple as filling out an application. Meanwhile, we give little thought to how challenging this can be for those who suffer from chronic illnesses or disabling conditions. What Rawls also saw clearly was that other classic principles of justice, like the golden rule or mutual benevolence, are subject to distortion precisely because we tend to do this.
Nowadays, the veil of ignorance is challenged by a powerful but ancient contender: the veil of opulence. While no serious political philosopher actually defends such a device — the term is my own — the veil of opulence runs thick in our political discourse. Where the veil of ignorance offers a test for fairness from an impersonal, universal point of view — “What system would I want if I had no idea who I was going to be, or what talents and resources I was going to have?” — the veil of opulence offers a test for fairness from the first-person, partial point of view: “What system would I want if I were so-and-so?” These two doctrines of fairness — the universal view and the first-person view — are both compelling in their own way, but only one of them offers moral clarity impartial enough to guide our policy decisions.
Those who don the veil of opulence may imagine themselves to be fantastically wealthy movie stars or extremely successful business entrepreneurs. They vote and set policies according to this fantasy. “If I were such and such a wealthy person,” they ask, “how would I feel about giving X percentage of my income, or Y real dollars per year, to pay for services that I will never see nor use?” We see this repeatedly in our tax policy discussions, and we have just seen the latest instance of it in the Tax Policy Center’s comparison of President Obama’s tax plan versus Mitt Romney’s tax plan. “He’s asking you to pay more so that people like him can pay less,” Obama said last week, “so that people like me pay less.” Last Monday he drove the point even harder, saying that Romney’s plan is like “Robin Hood in reverse.” And certainly, Romney’s selection on Saturday of Paul Ryan as his running mate will keep this issue in the forefront of our political discourse.
It is one thing for the very well off to make these arguments. What is curious is that frequently the same people who pose these questions are not themselves wealthy, nor even particularly healthy. Instead, they ask these questions under the supposition that they are insisting upon fairness. But the veil of opulence operates only under the guise of fairness. It is rather a distortion of fairness, by virtue of the partiality that it smuggles in. It asks not whether a policy is fair given the huge range of advantages or hardships the universe might throw at a person but rather whether it is fair that a very fortunate person should shoulder the burdens of others. That is, the veil of opulence insists that people imagine that resources and opportunities and talents are freely available to all, that such goods are widely abundant, that there is no element of randomness or chance that may negatively impact those who struggle to succeed but sadly fail through no fault of their own. It blankets off the obstacles that impede the road to success. It turns a blind eye to the adversity that some people, let’s face it, are born into. By insisting that we consider public policy from the perspective of the most-advantaged, the veil of opulence obscures the vagaries of brute luck.
The question of fairness has widespread application throughout our political discourse. It affects taxation, health care, education, social safety nets and so on. The veil of opulence would have us screen for fairness by asking what the most fortunate among us are willing to bear. The veil of ignorance would have us screen for fairness by asking what any of us would be willing to bear, if it were the case that we, or the ones we love, might be born into difficult circumstances or, despite our hard work, blindsided by misfortune. Society is in place to correct for the injustices of the universe, to ensure that our lives can run smoothly despite the stuff that is far out of our control: not to hand us what we need, but to give us the opportunity to pursue life, liberty and happiness. The veil of ignorance helps us see that. The veil of opulence keeps us in the dark.