The Veil of Opulence
By BENJAMIN HALE
The New York Times
August 12, 2012
More than 40 years ago the philosopher John Rawls, in his influential political work “A Theory of Justice,” implored the people of the world to shed themselves of their selfish predispositions and to assume, for the sake of argument, that they were ignorant. He imposed this unwelcome constraint not so that his readers — mostly intellectuals, but also students, politicians and policy makers — would find themselves in a position of moribund stupidity but rather so they could get a grip on fairness.
Rawls saw clearly that principles of justice like the golden rule or mutual benevolence, are subject to distortion.
Rawls charged his readers to design a society from the ground up, from an original position, and he imposed the ignorance constraint so that readers would abandon any foreknowledge of their particular social status — their wealth, their health, their natural talents, their opportunities or any other goodies that the cosmos may have thrown their way.
In doing so, he hoped to identify principles of justice that would best help individuals maximize their potential, fulfill their objectives (whatever they may happen to be) and live a good life. He called this presumption the “veil of ignorance.”
...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.
Of course, the veil of opulence is not limited to tax policy. Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito and Antonin Scalia advanced related logic in their oral arguments on the Affordable Care Act in March. “[T]he mandate is forcing these [young] people,” Justice Alito said, “to provide a huge subsidy to the insurance companies … to subsidize services that will be received by somebody else.” By suggesting in this way that the policy was unfair, Alito encouraged the court to assess the injustice themselves. “If you were healthy and young,” Justice Alito implied, “why should you be made to bear the burden of the sick and old?”
The answer to these questions, when posed in this way, is clear. It seems unfair, unjust, to be forced to pay so much more than someone of lesser means. We should all be free to use our money and our resources however we see fit. And so, the opulence argument for fairness gets off the ground.
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...