John Rawls and The Veil of Ignorance

Justice: What is the Right Thing to Do? Michael Sandel


An unspoken premise in the numerous discussions now taking place among economists concerning the future of capitalism is that we must accept people as they are and design new rules that will prevent bad results from occurring, given that premise. In the language of economists, preferences of individuals are fixed: the problem is to change the rules of the game so that, when every individual attempts to maximize his welfare given his information, the outcome or equilibrium will be a good one. Indeed, the Nobel prize in 2007 was awarded to three economists (Leonid Hur- wicz, Eric Maskin, and Roger Myerson) who constructed theories which characterize exactly which outcomes (or more generally, welfare) can be implemented through some set of rules, regardless of what the preferences of individuals may be. The variable in this theory is the set of rules, and the objective is to achieve, by clever choice of these rules, an outcome deemed to be desirable in the sense that it appropriately balances the welfare of all individuals…I envision a sequential and incremental process, whereby increased social insurance generates a change in citizen preferences in a solidaristic direction, which then induces still more social insurance through the democratic process. This is the process, I conjecture, that brought Europe, and especially northern Europe, to where it is today, where countries have a significantly more egalitarian distribution of final income than in the United States, and yet where labor productivity remains approximately as high as it is here. John E. Roemer, Changing the Social Ethos is the Key, 2009.


It is often assumed that the only alternative to equality of opportunity is a sterile, oppressive equality of results. But there is another alternative; a broad equality of condition that enables those who do not achieve great wealth or prestigious positions to live lives of decency and dignity—developing and exercising their abilities in work that wins social esteem, sharing in a widely diffused culture of learning, and deliberating with their fellow citizens about public affairs. Michael J. Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020, p. 224.


How selfish soever many may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it…The compassion of the spectator must arise altogether from the consideration of what he himself would feel if he was reduced to the same unhappy situation…That wealth and greatness are often regarded with the respect and admiration which are due only to wisdom and virtue; and that the contempt, of which vice and folly are the only proper objects, is often most unjustly bestowed upon poverty and weakness, has been the complaint of moralists in all ages. Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759.


The central tragedy of the age reflects meritocracy’s triumph. Meritocracy—not by betraying its ideals but rather by realizing them—imposes a caste order that equality’s champions should condemn. And combating inequality requires resisting the meritocratic ideal itself. Daniel Markovitz, Penguin Books, 2020, p. 19.