Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Great Expectations

No changes in the expectations of those better off can improve the situation of those worst off.
— John Rawls

Political “talking points” are preventing us from seeing that the GOP’s tax proposals are thoroughly undemocratic. We should consider the bills in more basic terms.

For those, I’d turn to A Theory of Justice, the best-known work of the late philosopher John Rawls.

From a moral viewpoint, Rawls says, accidents of birth—inherited wealth, social advantage, and inborn talent—are unjust. Society’s winners and losers are chosen by a “natural lottery,” not by divine decree. Almost everyone accepts the fact. But how to correct the injustice?

Aristocrats think the way to correct the injustice is to increase their own wealth. The more they have, they greater their opportunities to practice noblesse oblige. Hell, it worked in feudal times, right?

try to correct the injustice with education, which in theory gives a fair shake to people of equal talent. But there’s still a problem, even then, because education favors only the talented; incompetent people—and talented people raised in dysfunctional families—remain stuck with lousy lottery numbers. So, some forms of income redistribution must come into play. Once we’re troubled by the effects of chance on people’s lives, Rawls says, it’s inevitable we insist that the social order doesn’t exist to secure greater expectations for those better off “unless doing so is to the advantage of those less fortunate.”

Conservatives—would-be aristocrats—put their faith in piggy schemes to increase the expectations of the already wealthy. If the schemes are enacted, some of that wealth, they believe, will “trickle down” to the rest of society; so, they’re quite willing to live with rampant inequality—and injustice. That injustice grows, the more piggy the schemes become. “A scheme is unjust when the higher expectations are excessive,” Rawls says. “If these expectations are decreased, the situation of the least favored would be improved. How unjust an arrangement is depends on how excessive the higher expectations are and to what extent they depend upon the violation of other principles of justice, for example, fair equality of opportunity.”

Avoiding injustice is why we embrace democracy, Rawls says. And in a democracy, those who are best off should not have a veto over the benefits available to the worst off.
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