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The veil of ignorance

Published: 
Sunday, October 22, 2017
Dr Fazal Ali

Poverty is epistemic—it is a deprivation of capability. When an individual gets a disproportionate amount of service, or an inequality and unfairness arises when services are distributed, then distributive justice is absent. Any attempt to address inequalities in the provision and outcomes of schooling can only be addressed from the “original position” of equality—that is, from behind a veil of ignorance.

Acting from behind such a veil, one is unable to know in advance which layer of society they may come to inhabit, what their ethnicity may be, where they may come to reside, who their parents may be, what talents they may come to nurture, what their life goals may turn out to be, what their particular life plan may develop into and what opportunities, advantages, benefits and privileges they may be afforded or denied by virtue of their birth.

From behind such a cloak they will always choose liberties, policies, institutions, opportunities, outcomes and legislation that will minimise harm to the least advantaged person in society because they simply cannot know beforehand who they may turn out to be, when the cloak is lifted. They would choose the maximin rule as their principle and will always distribute the greatest benefit to the least advantaged.

If they are the least advantaged person in society and they choose a particular ecological design, set of policies, legislation and institutional types that will give them more rather than fewer liberties, more rather than fewer opportunities and more rather than less income and wages, they will make the same decisions, wanting more rather than less, even if they turn out to be the least unfavourably affected person in society. This suggests that one way to think about equality is that it establishes an equal floor more than an equal ceiling.

Equality exists when every citizen is allowed to freely participate in acquiring services and goods and no one is blocked from acquiring more services or goods, which would be a sole function of the will, not any social or political circumstance. In such a case, distributive justice can be said to be present.

The capabilities we have are distributed in morally arbitrary ways and the use we choose to make of them remains a question of effort and our willingness to delay gratification. However, differences that flow from our varying strengths of effort should not entitle us to anything in particular, since this predilection is also morally arbitrary.

Attempts to end social inequality through ambitious education reforms always miscarry simply because varying levels of education can only partially account for wage inequality. It is inaccurate to assume that inequality of opportunity can be reduced simply by increasing public investment in schooling. The influence of social origin on professional success goes beyond access to education. When level of education attainment is controlled, the effects of social origin are statistically significant at every career stage. Research on economic growth and convergence in Western countries has shown that compulsory elementary education is undoubtedly the most important of all instruments for efficient redistribution.

In practice, the effects of educational spending are small, not because the family environment is the sole determinant of scholastic success, but because students’ chances of scholastic success depend more on the quality of their classmates, the school, and the neighbourhood social environment in which their education is ensconced, rather than on education spending per se.

In France, high-prestige options are essential for middle class students to avoid social demotion while poorer students sidestep social devaluation by avoiding these options altogether for any given level of ability.

Eric Williams addressed this vast wastage of talent which had narrow chances of further development across all stages of schooling and disrupted the patterns, prejudices and practices of a plantation society. His reforms have reduced absolute differences in rates of participation. The next steps, however, must confront the unfreedom of capability deprivation because development is freedom.