In 1971 John Rawls published “A Theory of Justice,” the most significant articulation and defense of political liberalism of the 20th century. Rawls proposed that the structure of a just society was the one that a group of rational actors would come up with if they were operating behind a “veil of ignorance” — that is, provided they had no prior knowledge what their gender, age, wealth, talents, ethnicity and education would be in the imagined society. Since no one would know in advance where in society they would end up, rational agents would select a society in which everyone was guaranteed basic rights, including equality of opportunity. Since genuine (rather than “on paper”) equality of opportunity requires substantial access to resources — shelter, medical care, education — Rawls’s rational actors would also make their society a redistributive one, ensuring a decent standard of life for everyone.
So if this is the right way to determine how a society can be a just society, how would a rational agent in Rawls’ book differ from a wise agent in the book of Proverbs?
Here is the problem:
In Rawls’ view, society is “just there” and its resources and wealth fall from the sky. They aren’t produced. It didn’t require hard work by motivated people to make those resources available They don’t run out. They don’t need to be conserved. There is simply an eternal unchanging mass of wealth that needs to be minimally distributed.
But Rawls is being irrational to believe this. If he were rational he would realize that wealth gets created and conserved. People act with greater or lesser efficiency.
If he had any Biblical perspective he would know that peoples and nations rise and fall according to the aggregate decisions the people make.
Rawls was only really asking what about people who know they are joining a society that has reached the point like the one in which he was writing. And he was further assuming that resources would not get used up by the society that he was advocating.
American wealth did not just happen. It got created by people who had none of the so-called “rights” that he advocated. They had to provide for themselves.
And American wealth did not increase under the application of Rawls’ vision. It has been dissipating. People get a “right” to a shrinking pie.
So if you are lucky enough to hit the welfare-state jackpot when it is first flush with cash, you will be happy with Rawlsian rationality. But if you come to it later, you will find a different situation.
If you include ignorance of when the rational agents will join this society, then they are going to want a market driven, free society so that, even if they don’t have equal access to resources, they still have a growing standard of living.