Hilzoy's recent post on liberals and libertarianism (which attracted surprisingly few comments when compared to the other posts in the series) reminded me of something I wanted to talk about. Since she specifically didn't want to deal with it in that post I thought I would bring it to another thread rather than try to threadjack over there. The bit I wanted to talk about was:
I'm going to get there by deferring the question of justifying my claims; I've decided that if I don't cut to the chase, I may never get to the end of this. (Short version: Rawls.) But first, a few short notes.
I'm not a huge fan of Rawls, but I'm not totally sure if it is specifically his views or the way elaborations on his views have played out. I have read his Political Liberalism though not his other works. The following are free-form thoughts about some of his more influential ideas.
His principles of Justice are generally stated:
I. Each person has an equal claim to a fully adequate scheme of basic rights and liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme for all; and in this scheme the equal political liberties, and only those liberties, are to be guaranteed their fair value.
II. Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: first they are to be attached to positions and offices open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second they are to be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society.
In part, my resistance to the first part of the formulation may not be a direct reaction to his views but rather a resistance to these views as they play out in modern debates. My problem is not with his definition of basic rights and liberties, but with the problem that the concept of what 'basic rights' include seems to be expanding to include economic equality issues. So my problem may be that popular views of Rawls mix the two together into once concept. Does anyone else have that sense?
I have major objections to the second principle. I'm not sure his 'veil of ignorance' hypothetical justifies it as strongly as he thinks. I am not convinced that from behind the veil people would generally choose the hyper-conservative (in the sense of risk) position of maximizing the position of the least well off. I suspect many people would be willing to have a small risk of being worse off for a large chance at a place in a society which was much better off than a more equalized society. I suspect that this risk would be modified by the number of people in that position (the smaller the risk of actually being in the lowest group the greater material inequality people would be willing to risk) and by the level of the position of the lowest group.
To be more specific imagine a scale of wealth where 1 is near constant starvation, 5 is the material level of successful primitive hunter tribes, 10 is the material success of non-abused serf in the Middle Ages, 20 is the level of wealth of the middle class in Mexico, 50 is the level of wealth of the middle class in the US, 100 is the level of wealth and opportunity available to the upper quarter of the US population, 500 is the wealth available to the upper 1% of the US population and 1000 is the level of wealth available to Bill Gates.
I suspect few people would choose from behind the veil to be in a society with 1/3 distribution of 1,10,1000 if 5,100,500 were available. People may very well choose a 1/3 distribution of 50/100/500 over 20/500/1000 from behind the veil. But is it really true that people would choose a 50% distribution of 50/100 over a 1% chance at 20 and a 99% chance at 1000? Would people really choose a 75%/15%/10% distribution of 50/100/500 over a 5%/25%/25%/20%/25% distribution of 75/100/500/1000? Would people really choose a 99%/1% split of 50/100 over a 1%/99% split of 49/500? I guess my intuitions don't mesh with his, but I just don't think so. I think with a basic level well above subsistence, people are willing to risk a small or medium chance of slightly worse outcomes for a medium to high chance of much better outcomes.
UPDATE: I just realized that one of my examples doesn't fit into the Rawlsian scheme. "Would people really choose a 75%/15%/10% distribution of 50/100/500 over a 5%/25%/25%/20%/25% distribution of 75/100/500/1000?" doesn't make sense from Rawls' point of view. They would choose the latter because the lowest is at 75 instead of 50. To make sense it should read:
"Would people really choose a 75%/15%/10% distribution of 75/100/500 over a 5%/25%/25%/20%/25% distribution of 50/100/500/1000?" In this instance, even the poorest people in the poorest distribution are at the wealth of the US middle class. At such a level I strongly suspect that people would take a small risk of slight loss in the second distribution for the large chance of gain in the second.