Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Guarantees and opportunities

John Rawls was a contemporary philosopher that put his own spin on the social contract theory -- that of the "veil of ignorance". In short, his idea was that if we were all disembodied spirits in space and not yet humans on earth, would we choose to live in a society that put restrictions on women or minorities, or inhibited peoples by class? He poses that we would not support such ideas, as we could very well end up with the short end of that individual freedom stick once we were assigned an earthly body. He believed that we would all sit down and script a social contract with equality for all.

But he mentioned class in his illustration. Does he mean that the wealth should all be distributed equally, or simply give the opportunity equally to everyone to pursue wealth? The differece is fairly profound, I argue.

If he meant to support equal distribution of wealth, then one could argue that a successful social contract means little more than setting up a socialist or communist government, designed primarily to control the wealth of the people and distribute it evenly. If he meant to support the idea that every person has the same rights to pursue individual wealth, then arguing for a free market society and capitalism is the way to go.

But even if we take political application out of the equation and remove all labels, then let's just look at the primary difference between "equal wealth" vs. "equal opportunity":

To simplify this idea in terms of survival, let's pretend that there are only 10 of us on earth, and we live together in our own village. Let's say I go out and gather 2 pounds of berries, another guy hunts down 1 rabbit, and our village has some chickens that laid 5 eggs today.

With equal wealth, if just two of us gathered or hunted any food, it doesn't matter, for we all will get some of the loot. That means that the village divides the 2 pounds of berries, 1 rabbit, and 5 eggs between us. We each get 3.2 oz of berries, 1/10 of the rabbit, and half an egg a piece. Without even arguing over who gets the pelt or how it's equally shared, what about the different body types? Should age or health matter in the distribution of the food? If there's a small child that doesn't eat that much or a large warrior that requires more than that to keep his strength, or a sick person that needs additional nutrition... what do we do? Our social contract insists we share it all equally. While members of the village may decide to share above and beyond their own wealth, they are not required to, so there is no guarantees in the social contract for it. And what about the people that actually did all the work? Do they deserve no reward for carrying the whole of the village on their back? And what about those that did nothing? Should they be rewarded for their laziness? These are but some of the many difficult questions that arise from the idea of equal wealth.

Equal opportunity, on the other hand, would allow for every member of the village to go out and hunt or gather, regardless of sex, age, color of skin, etc, and would allow them to keep their rewards. The result is that while luck and skill would play a part in daily fluctuations of bounty, there would be no limit to the possibility that a member of the community had to gain wealth, and thus it is often argued that the village would be inspired to work hard to pursue their own wealth. In this system there is no guaranteed foodstuffs to be distributed at the end of the day, but it is argued that people would be generous with their neighbors when their neighbors tried hard and fell short, as they would want such generosity to be returned to them in tough times.

While equal wealth is a more Kantian approach to a social contract -- by this I mean the village would be doing good because it is their duty to do so -- it also does not encourage anyone to go out and try harder than any other, because even not hunting and gathering at all will still result in being given bounty. It could be argued that nothing besides hunger would ever drive any member out to hunt and gather. Such base needs would not warrant a generous spirit when doling out equal portions to any one else, when instead they would wish only to fill their own bellies. Perhaps such starvation could drive a member of the community to steal from the others by eating out in the field and not bringing back the whole bounty to the others. Perhaps they would begin to wish members of the community to die or be killed off to lessen the burden.

In the equal opportunity, a person could become discouraged that others go out and successfully bring home more bounty than another, but an encouraged person could desire to try harder, learn better methods, improve efficiency. Perhaps a person who has no luck could desire to quit trying, or harbor grudges against the successful members of the village, wishing to kill the successful members off and steal their wealth. It is here where the social contract becomes so important, as a social contract -- as per Hobbes's definition -- exists to unite warring persons in that they agree to live under a set of rules because the rules are better than the lawlessness and anarchy that would otherwise exist.

Is one system better than another? Yes, in my opinion. But it's going to take more than just my opinion to work towards any sort of social contract that transcends the political strife we bathe in in this country. It's far easier to talk about how things should be than do anything to create a better community; and if you don't do anything at all, but promise to do everything, you can keep getting re-elected on the grounds that you still have work to do. HA!

No comments: