veil of ignorance

The philosopher John Rawls, that poet of liberalism, asked us in his seminal book A Theory of Justice to perform a little thought experiment. Imagine that we are designing the perfect society. In order for this society to be fairest to all its citizens, we should do so behind what he called a “veil of ignorance.” That is to say, we should design a society where we couldn’t know beforehand what our economic or social situation would be. This would cause us to consider what kind of society we would want to live in if, once the veil of ignorance was lifted, we found ourselves to be in the least well-off position. We would be forced to ask ourselves what the minimal living requirements would be for someone who might find themselves in the least well-off position in this imaginary society. A few things come to mind: food, shelter, clothing, education, health care, and the opportunity to support oneself through gainful employment. Using the veil of ignorance as a tool, we could potentially design a society that guaranteed liberty and justice for all.

Conservatives since Ronald Reagan have been very adept at convincing Americans that people who are down on their luck and who find themselves in the least well-off position that Rawls asks us to consider are simply not working hard enough, are lazy, or in some other way gaming the system. I remember having a conversation with a clerk at Zumiez, a skateboard shop in the Maine Mall. He told me about his past struggles with unemployment and how he resented the prevailing attitude that those who accepted unemployment benefits or other public assistance were simply lazy, preferring to sit at home and collect their checks rather than look for work. He said before he got his job at Zumiez, he collected about $200 a week in unemployment benefits. His rent was almost $600 a month, which didn’t leave room for much else, even food. He desperately wanted to work, and luckily he found a job. But as we know, millions of other Americans haven’t been so lucky.

The paradigm that conservatives have been using to scare middle-class white voters for the past 30 years, and that echoes even today with the demonization of our first African-American president, is the concept of the “welfare queen.” This is somebody, probably a member of a minority, who would prefer to sit at home collecting a check instead of getting a job. This tired conservative strategy to get votes, continued with vigor in the Tea Party movement, is that the government is taking your money (white, middle-class, hard-working, people) and giving it to Those People (lazy minorities or illegal immigrants). As the political battles over collective-bargaining rights in Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin have demonstrated, teachers, police officers, firefighters, and other public-sector employees have also been lumped into the welfare queen’s family by conservative politicians. These valuable public workers have been rebranded as lazy, greedy underachievers who bilk the taxpayers out of their hard-earned money. As long as conservatives, and this would include every single current GOP presidential candidate, can continue to convince potential voters that there is one group (the true hard-working Americans) who have been duped by another group (the lazy minorities, illegal immigrants, and public employees), the strategy will continue. But this ignores the wisdom of Rawls’ thought-experiment, and provides conservative politicians and voters with a lazy intellectual justification for cutting social programs.

I would counter that most Americans, in fact the vast majority of them, want desperately to work and actually feel some shame in collecting unemployment benefits. Yes, there will always be folks who work the system to their advantage by cheating. Cheating exists at all levels of our society and, I would argue, is much more prevalent and devastating in the upper economic classes. (Take just one example: Richard Fuld, the CEO of the now-bankrupt Lehman Brothers, received over $483 million in compensation during the eight years between 2000 and 2008.) But one can’t make the logical leap, as conservative politicians have done, that the existence of cheating implies that everyone who needs help in our society is a cheater. Our social safety nets, the ones that fiscal conservatives are so eager to do away with, were wisely created to help our citizens survive the vagaries and whims of global capitalism. Tea Party aficionados love to rail against the evils of socialism. But do you know what really let us down these last ten years? Capitalism. Capitalism let us down. The kind of unbridled capitalism that conservatives love to talk about. The kind of capitalism that completely devastated the world economy. We had unrestrained, unbridled capitalism under George W. Bush, and look where it got us. We are still feeling its painful effects today.

All this a precursor to say that we seem to have lost one of the most vital elements of our, or any, society: compassion. Tea Party politicians are eager to complain about the supposed shredding of our Constitution under Barack Obama. But I fear that another document has been shredded: the social contract we have with each other. I see this in Washington, and I see this right here in Bath, Maine. In ten years, we have devolved from “United We Stand” to “Leave Me Alone.”

Conservative politicians have been very, very good at dividing us. But actually, we have divided ourselves. We have been too quick to believe their rhetoric. One of the great weaknesses of human nature is that we very quickly make up our minds without all the facts. Why do we automatically assume the worst about our fellow Americans? Because it’s the easiest position to take. Then we don’t have to think, or to open our hearts to the suffering of others. We believe in the value of our hard work and success, and don’t understand why others just can’t follow our lead. But life is uncertain, and nothing is permanent. We could be rich and successful one day, and need public assistance the next. Why? Because one of the cruelties of capitalism is that it always, always puts profits over people. Capitalism is not intrinsically patriotic. Capitalism goes where production costs are lowest and profits are highest. It’s true that capitalism has created great prosperity for our country. But capitalism and greed need not be synonymous. We can have capitalism without the unrestrained greed that toppled the world economy and caused millions of Americans to lose their jobs and their homes. All we have to do is remember the wisdom of John Rawls. What kind of society would we want to live in, knowing that we could one day be the ones on the very bottom? In such a society, we are all Those People.

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