These days, political discourse in the United States is governed by what Benjamin Hale calls the “veil of opulence.”
Those who don the veil of opulence may imagine themselves to be fantastically wealthy movie stars or extremely successful business entrepreneurs. They vote and set policies according to this fantasy. “If I were such and such a wealthy person,” they ask, “how would I feel about giving X percentage of my income, or Y real dollars per year, to pay for services that I will never see nor use?” We see this repeatedly in our tax policy discussions. . .
Of course, the veil of opulence is not limited to tax policy. Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito and Antonin Scalia advanced related logic in their oral arguments on the Affordable Care Act in March. “[T]he mandate is forcing these [young] people,” Justice Alito said, “to provide a huge subsidy to the insurance companies … to subsidize services that will be received by somebody else.” By suggesting in this way that the policy was unfair, Alito encouraged the court to assess the injustice themselves. “If you were healthy and young,” Justice Alito implied, “why should you be made to bear the burden of the sick and old?”
The answer to these questions, when posed in this way, is clear. It seems unfair, unjust, to be forced to pay so much more than someone of lesser means. We should all be free to use our money and our resources however we see fit. And so, the opulence argument for fairness gets off the ground.
But, contra Hale, John Rawls’s veil of ignorance is not the only alternative to the veil of opulence. In fact, if we admit we live in a society with different economic classes, the best Rawls’s approach gives us is a somewhat more equal distribution of income. What if, instead, we cast off all veils—of both opulence and ignorance—and started instead with the situation of people where they are within the class structure. Then, we would be able to see that there is a large class of people who work and get insulted and injured and live in poverty or risk falling into poverty and who have little say over what goes on in their places of work or in the political system—in short, who suffer the conditions and consequences of exploitation on a daily basis.
In liberation theology, it’s called the preferential option for the poor. In class terms, it’s the injustice of exploitation. Either way, it’s decidedly neither the veil of opulence nor the veil of ignorance.
The task, it seems to me, is to start from where people are, out in front of any and all veils, and then make that the basis of a universal claim: the idea that ending exploitation will benefit everyone, both those who are currently exploited and those who seem to benefit from the exploitation of others. Just as bourgeois ideology makes a universalizing claim—that everyone is or can become bourgeois—so the claim of working people can be a different universalizing claim, that a new kind of fairness is possible: from each according to ability, to each according to need.