The coming catastrophes and the Rawlsian veil of ignorance
A just society, according to Rawls, is a society whose structure, whose rewards and punishments, are set up before we know what position we will hold in it. The Rawlsian veil of ignorance cuts deeper than most people realize. Take for example old-fashioned meritocracy: grades, schooling, intelligence. Should intelligence be highly rewarded? Would you set up society to reward the smart heavily if you didn’t know you’d be smart? Most of smart is your parents, in terms of nutrition, education and genetics. You don’t choose your parents, you can’t know that you’ll be smart before you’re born. Smart is mostly not a choice, neither is healthy, nor a type A personality, and so on.
The great problem we have today in improving our society, in fixing our economy, is that so many people don’t want to give up what they have. If you work in the health insurance industry in the US, an evil industry whose job is to deny care in exchange for money, for example, your job needs to go away. It is a job which does more harm than good. If you work in peteroleum extraction, well, most of those jobs need to go away. If you work in a large bank or brokerage, well, your job needs to change in a way that will deprive you of your high bonuses, and which will leave many bankers and traders unemployed, because banking done in a way that build society rather than tears it down probably doesn’t need your skill set. We need a lot less accountants, a lot less administrators at universities, a lot less soldiers, a ton less spies, far fewer people working in the military-industrial complex, and on and on.
But what the past 40 years have proven is this: if you lose your job, you’re on your own. If you’re in your 40s and 50s and you lose a good job, you’ll probably never, ever, have a good job ever again. People who are displaced by economic change, good or bad, aren’t taken care of. We have reduced retraining, made welfare and unemployment insurance harder to get, increased university tuition, not made efforts to find or create new, good jobs. We hire foreigners to take over the job of older techies, since they cost too much.
People know, they know and they are right, that economic change, in our society, could cost them everything. Their job and any prospect of a good job. Their house. Their marriage. Their health care and even their life.
So they grasp tightly to what they have, and everyone fights to make sure that nothing really changes. Each person, with their little or big piece of the pie, fights viciously to keep it whether it’s good for society or not. They are right to do so.
This is why we can only have change after catastrophe: after war and famine and revolution, because only in extremis, only when, as in WWII, people realize that everyone is in it together, will they be willing to take care of each other. And only in time of catastrophe, when so many have lost everything, will they be willing to change society. Catastrophe forms a Rawlsian veil on the future: you don’t know, after the age of catastrophe, what your position in society will be. Not knowing that, it behooves you to make that society as equitable as possible.
This is the argument for catastrophe: that we will not, cannot, make the changes required to avoid catastrophe until we have lost or truly, existentially, fear the loss of everything. We will not be fair and kind to each other till we have no choice, we will not be fair and kind to others till we know we need that for ourselves.
This is sad, pathetic even, an indictment of humanity. Does it have to be so? I hope not, but I fear it does.
It is such issues I will discuss in my coming book. Are we bound to the wheel of causality even in our own societies, or can we take control of our own destinies?