John Edward, a resident of Chelmsford who earned his master’s degree at UMass Lowell and is an adjunct professor of economics at Bentley University, contributes the following column which deserves to be read by everyone.
Where ignorance is bliss, ‘Tis folly to be wise
If ignorance is bliss, does that mean politicians are a perfect match for their job? To the contrary, lawmakers would craft better economic policy if they learned to be more ignorant.
The federal budget deficit was front and center during the 2010 elections. Many pundits interpreted the national results as a repudiation of excessive government spending. Regardless of how accurate that reading might be, do not expect much to change. Congress knows too much to allow that to happen.
Our elected representatives are responsible for setting the rules of the game. Lawmakers, and the voters who put them in office, form opinions based on what they know. The life we experience drives what we know. We take for granted how much our experience is based on the initial hand we are dealt in life.
John Rawls, an influential 20th century philosopher, suggested we set the rules of the game based on a “veil of ignorance.” He was not advocating ignorance of the facts when adopting public policy positions. Rather, we should ignore our own position in society and how policy will affect us personally. If we applied Rawls’ philosophy today, the result would be a better tomorrow for society as a whole.
Lawmakers respond to special interests. That is wrong, no matter who the interest is, or how special they are.
Applying the veil of ignorance, we would not sacrifice sound public policy at the altar of special-interest politics. Legislators would pass laws as if they did not know what social standing, market power, or health status we start out with.
Take health care for example. Insurers work hard to protect their profits. People who already get government-subsidized health insurance through their employer do not want to spend money subsidizing the uninsured. Others resent being forced into getting insurance because they happen to be healthy. Members of Congress get excellent coverage and may not be able to relate to what it is like to get sick with poor coverage or none at all.
We should formulate policy without knowing what cards we will be dealt in life – the veil of ignorance. You could be born to an affluent couple in a quiet suburb or to a poor single parent in a violent inner city. You may end up in Mensa, or programs for the developmentally challenged. You could be blessed with good health or cursed with lifelong medical problems.
If we applied the veil of ignorance, a system where everyone gets health insurance is compelling. It would insure individuals against being dealt a bad hand, and the final collective cost would be lower.
Our elected officials should not be representing the loudest interest group, the most generous donators, or only the people that voted for them. They should represent all of us.
This does not excuse any of us from taking personal responsibility for what we do with our endowment. It means society must take responsibility for endowing everyone with the opportunity to do something with what they have.
Taxes are another example. We should not base tax policy on a belief or claim that a tax would hurt a specific industry, that it would discourage a particular investment, or encourage a certain behavior. Taxes should generate the revenue required to provide services in a manner that promotes the common good.
How much we pay is not as important as who pays. Taxes must above all be fair. If we apply the veil of ignorance, we should all be satisfied with the result, even if we did not know in advance how much we would pay.
Under the veil of ignorance, a tax policy where the poor pay a much higher rate than the wealthy does not make sense. Yet, that is what we have in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Meanwhile, powerful interest groups are pushing for lower corporate taxes, lower taxes on capital gains, and tax breaks based on age rather than ability to pay.
It is not about equality of results. Rather the objective should be equality of opportunity. The only way we get that result is if we are impartial — if we assume the veil of ignorance.
However, lawmakers know too much. The Tea Party is pushing Congress to adopt a ban on adding earmarks to spending bills. While the idea has merit, it stands no chance without a veil of ignorance.
Members of the 112th Congress will know what spending programs benefit their district. They know voters will be appeased if the overall economy improves and their work in the Capital is perceived as creating jobs back home. Incumbents know how to improve their chances of being re-elected.
It is not folly to be wise. The wise thing to do would be to heed John Rawls when he said: “we must nullify the effects of special contingencies which put men at odds and tempt them to exploit social and natural circumstances to their own advantage.” Next time you consider a public policy issue, try applying the veil of ignorance.