John Rawls famously argues that we should think about principles of justice from behind a “veil of ignorance.” How robust would you like the protection of religious freedom to be if you had no idea whether you turn out to be a Christian, Muslim, atheist, etc.? How would you like income to be distributed if you had no idea whether you’ll be rich or poor?
If there’s a chance that you’ll be part of an unpopular religious minority, you’ll want to make sure religious liberty is taken seriously. If there’s a chance you’ll be among society’s poorest, you’ll want the economic institutions that do the best job of alleviating poverty.
In a Rawlsian spirit, I suggest that when we theorize about the institutions we’d like for our society, we ask ourselves the following:
- How expansive would we like executive powers to be if they might be wielded by Donald Trump?
- What do we want the Department of the Interior to do knowing that it might be run by Sarah Palin?
- How powerful should the Department of Education be in light of the possibility it could be headed by Ben Carson?
(These questions aren’t pulled out of thin air.) If there’s a chance that the Department of Education will be run by someone who thinks the Big Bang is a “fairy tale,” you might want to scale back its power, just to be safe.
This is an old thought. Hayek says it goes back to Adam Smith. On Hayek’s view, Smith’s concern
was not so much with what man might occasionally achieve when he was at his best but that he should have as little opportunity as possible to do harm when he was at his worst. It would scarcely be too much to claim that the main merit of the individualism which he and his contemporaries advocated is that it is a system under which bad men can do least harm. It is a social system which does not depend for its functioning on our finding good men for running it, or on all men becoming better than they now are, but which makes use of men in all their given variety and complexity, sometimes good and sometimes bad, sometimes intelligent and more often stupid (“Individualism and Economic Order,” page 12).
Classical liberals like Smith and Hayek have a point. Now would be a good time for us to revisit it.