distributive justice social contract freedom rawls


The Veil of Self-Ignorance -- Rawls and George

by Fred E. Foldvary, Senior Editor, 11 March 2013

The theory of justice developed by John Harsanyi and John Rawls puts people into a "veil of ignorance" before asking them to create the rules for distributive justice. Behind the veil, people are in an "original condition" in which they do not know their personal status, whether they are smart or slow-witted, rich or poor, healthy or ill. With this self-ignorance, presumably people would choose the policies that would not leave them stranded if they happened to be poor.

We can think of the veil of self-ignorance as a social contract we would sign if we were suddenly hit with personal amnesia. The concept is ancient; for example, Adam Smith write about the perspective of the "impartial spectator."

I would want a social contract that allows me to keep all the income from my labor, and the freedom to engage in enterprise. I would want the personal freedom to do whatever does not harm others. As for the benefits provided by natural resources, since I don't know how much of these I would own, the best course would be for me to have a claim on an equal share of the benefits.

This rational choice -- equal self-ownership and equal natural benefits -- is the philosophy and economics of geoism. Yet almost none of the many commentators and followers of Rawls have arrived at this conclusion. It is not because the geoist ideas are hidden and unpublished.

The concept of geoism has been known since the time of the French Physiocrat economists. Adam Smith praised the use of ground rent for public revenue in the Wealth of Nations. The British economist David Ricardo discovered the model that explains the inverse relationship between wages and land rent. The American economist Henry George improved on Ricardo's theory and added a moral dimension. Since then there has been a large literature on "Georgist" policies and methods, and partial implementations world-wide.

Rawls himself proposed that society start the process with an egalitarian endowment, so that all persons have a high degree of skills and wealth. Then there would be less need for redistribution. This fits well into the geoist policy of all persons having an equal share of the land rent. There is no need to redistribute the ownership of financial assets and capital goods.

Rawls proposed a "difference principle" in which there is no need for an inequality that does not benefit the poor. Inequality of earned wealth does benefit the poor when entrepreneurs engage in more investment and production when they can keep the rewards. But inequality in land rent does not contribute to production, and therefore can be equalized.

Inconsistently, Rawls stated that basic liberties do not include the complete right to own financial and produced wealth, and does not include the free-market freedom of contract. But these liberties do benefit the poor, and restrictions on these are not needed to prevent poverty, if all may obtain education and all have an equal share of natural resource rents.

Hence the logical conclusion of the theory of justice proposed by John Rawls is geoism. The veil of ignorance is about one's personal circumstances, but that does not include scientific ignorance. If the people in the original condition were educated on ethics, economics, and governance, they would surely choose the geoist optimum. The literature on Rawls has instead applied a veil of economic and ethical ignorance on its analysis and conclusions.

John Rawls died in 2002. The fact that his "theory of justice" has been so influential shows how deficient the field of moral philosophy had been, despite 3000 years of moralizing. Natural moral law and the universal ethic are still veiled in ignorance by most of the public and by scholarly thinking.

Ultimately the "veil of ignorance" approach fails to really achieve a theory of justice. First, most people in fact are so culture-bound that they cannot think their way into the veil. Secondly, to arrive at justice from within the veil requires a knowledge of ethical principles in the first place. Hence the veil is redundant. Rawls' lack of sufficient economic knowledge made him blind to the geoist logical conclusions. Thus does the theory of justice in remain murky in today's social philosophy. We may as well take off the veil and go back to square one.

-- Fred Foldvary


Copyright 2010 by Fred E. Foldvary. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system, without giving full credit to Fred Foldvary and The Progress Report.

Also see:

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