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Soul-searching politics


John Rawls died last week at 81. He was widely considered to be the greatest political philosopher of the 20th century, a man whose name will be in the story books alongside Kant, Locke, even Plato. Alas, we hardly knew him.

Rawls taught at Harvard. His reputation rests on his 1971 book A Theory of Justice, a magisterial work in 87 sections arguing for a social contract to protect the least-advantaged people in society. Rawls was challenging the pre-eminence of logic and utilitarianism that had dominated philosophy since the 18th century. Utilitarianism argued that the best social policies were those that produced the most good for the most people--maximizing social welfare, in other words. Science, it was thought, made it possible to determine such policies objectively.

"A Theory of Justice," though, asked us to consider our ethical (or religious) beliefs as well as our political, utilitarian ones. To do this, he posed a famous thought experiment. Imagine that you are negotiating the terms of the social contract--how our society will work--with your fellow citizens. Imagine further that all of you are well-informed about economics, psychology, the sciences, etc. The one thing you don't know--none of you knows--is your own position in society. In this respect, you are behind a "veil of ignorance" as to whether, when the negotiations are done, you will be rich or poor, black or white, male or female, a Baptist in a Muslim world or vice versa.

How will the negotiations come out?

The only conclusion, Rawls argued, is that every negotiator will insist on the broadest possible religious and political liberties, combined with economic policies that maximize equality rather than--as utilitarianism had it--total output. Not knowing whether they would be at the top of the heap they'd created for themselves or the bottom, each would insist that inequalities be tolerated only to the extent that they helped the poorest and worst-off.

If that sounds radical, it was. But it was also rational. Rawls understood that policies favoring the poor would not be the most efficient, and that at some point the inefficiency would disadvantage everyone. At that point, it would stop, he said. But up to that point, a "just" society would tax the rich disproportionately (progressively, that is) and aggressively shift resources from rich to poor because that's what our fundamental beliefs about fairness would tell us to do--if we followed them.

Most likely, you've never heard of Rawls. He didn't do "Larry King," and in our society he was no match for the economic "theorists" who taught us that greed is good and to "let the markets work." These are lessons brought to us by the people for whom the markets are working very well indeed--who else but the rich could think it's perfectly OK for corporate executives to make $100 million a year while they lay off employees who are "inefficient"?

Rawls challenged us to search our souls and figure out the right thing to do regardless of whether we're going to be a rich CEO or the guy who sweeps up after him.

Kerry Meets the Press
Sen. John Kerry: ... This is the fight for our country. We can't go on any longer pretending to Americans that you can have everything, and that nobody has to have any cost attached to it. ...

And what Sept. 11 taught us, or reminded us, perhaps, is that there are some things that only the government will do. You know, the Republicans love to sort of say to you, "Oh, it's not the government's money, it's your money, and you deserve a refund." They don't tell you that it's your traffic jam, it's your school that's falling apart, it's your airport system that doesn't work, it's your security system that isn't there. ...

Tim Russert: But by freezing the Bush tax cut--

Kerry: I'm saying no new tax cuts, Tim.

Russert: But would you implement the ones that are now scheduled to take place?

Kerry: Those are new tax cuts.

Russert: The Bush administration says that is raising taxes because people--

Kerry: Well, I don't care what they say, Tim. The average American understands that a tax cut you don't have today is a new tax cut. ...

John Kerry, D-Mass., on Meet the Press Sunday. Kerry is running for president.

Bad News: Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker and the City Council agreed months ago to pay Progress Energy $14 million for a parking deck the company will build as part of its new corporate tower--and they just forgot to mention it?

After they'd rubber-stamped the deal recently, City Councilor Janet Cowell likened it to building sewers. We don't discuss every sewer we build, she said. So now everybody who puts up a building can expect the city to build them a parking deck?

Good News: Upon further review, the Wake County Board of Education is going to hold off on using Mistral Corp.'s drug-testing spray in the school system, and continue taking public comments through January. For more on the subject, see The Independent's Burtman column on Sept. 25 ( ). EndBlock

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