Monday, 25 February 2019


Rawls' "original position"/"veil of ignorance" doesn't work.

The idea is that, since you don't know before you are born what your position in a society will be, you should want an equal society, to make the worse-case scenario as palatable as possible.

There are various problems with this. One is that "maximin" is not necessarily the correct strategy. You might be willing to risk poverty if you improve your expected outcome. Another is that you are not in fact behind a veil of ignorance, you do know what your position in society is. It's not clear why the idea of a veil of ignorance is supposed to motivate you. Rawls called his idea "a theory of justice" but he does not try to show that equality is just and therefore self-motivating. (Moldbug remarked that Rawls just took the word "justice" and slapped it on his idea, ignoring that "justice" already had a perfectly good meaning: pacta sunt servanda.

The chief problem with Rawls is that his theory is not a dynamic theory; he does not consider time. There is no acknowledgement that changing the level of inequality in a society will have other effects. It is true that in the short run, you can improve the position of the poorest in society by magically redistributing wealth. But this would likely make them and everyone else worse off in the long run, because incentives matter. The historical record is clear that the poorest people under capitalist, somewhat redistributive states, are better off than those in fully-redistributive communist states. Ask somebody behind the veil of ignorance whether they would like to live in a society that had just endured a century of communism, or in a society after a hundred years of technological innovation driven by entrepreneurs motivated by wealth. The answer is obvious. Rawls might as well ask whether you would rather live in 1800 or 2000. Rawls' veil of ignorance does not add anything to traditional arguments about the effects of enforced equality.

But there is another, less well known idea in "A theory of justice". In addition to trying to justify full equality, not just of money but also of other "primary" goods like social status and beauty (good luck redistributing that), Rawls also attempts to justify liberalism.

He argues that people have different "life plans", and if one type of society is selected, most people's life plans will go unfulfilled. However, liberalism supposedly gives everyone the maximum chance to satisfy their life plan.

Firstly, again, just because someone would agree to liberalism before a veil of ignorance, there is no reason for them to continue to go along with it after the veil is lifted. It is difficult to see Stalin being persuaded by this argument.

More crucially, it is not true that liberalism allows all life plans to be satisfied. Life plans conflict all the time. Kaczynski's desire to live in quiet countryside conflicts with someone else's desire to build a motorway. Many life plans rely on living in a society where everyone else shares that life plan -- and not in a liberal democracy!

Only egalitarian individualists could agree to Rawls' arguments. Muslims, the Amish, hunter-gatherers such as Amazon tribesmen or American indians, Mongol horsemen, Aztec priests: all want something different. Ancient Greeks and Romans thought the purpose of the state was to promote glory, not equality or individual life plans. Anyone who values anything above the condition of the poor wants something better.

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