Rawls in the Real World

04/08/2014 06:34 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2014

It turns out John Rawls was right.

More than 40 years after he published his seminal work A Theory of Justice, the debate continues about the logic and desirability of subscribing to his worldview. We need debate no longer: we should all be Rawlsians now.

Recent figures on poverty in America explain why this is so. The shocking and sober conclusion from new statistics is that poverty is not just on the rise: it is actually the norm. In the wealthiest society this world has ever seen, almost half of Americans have experienced or will experience a sustained spell of poverty at one point or another in their lives. Like the word "minority" in an increasingly non-white nation, poverty -- a condition Americans normally associate with the marginal, the unlucky, and the out-of-sight -- is in need of redefinition.

These statistics also call for a radical rethinking of our collective mythology -- our mystical faith in self-reliance that has superficial appeal but manifestly lacks grounding in reality. Rawls provides the intellectual underpinning for that rethinking.

Rawls' groundbreaking insight was that people designing a just society ought to do so without regard to what socio-economic position they might occupy in it. Working behind this "veil of ignorance," not knowing (or pretending not to know) what rung they occupied on the ladder of privilege, people would logically choose to construct a society in which all citizens enjoyed a suite of basic economic rights and benefits. Though nominally an articulation of egalitarian principles, those rights and benefits would necessarily be more valuable to society's weaker and less privileged members.

Supporters and critics of Rawls alike have viewed his theories as a defense of the modern welfare state. Perhaps so. But beyond these stale left/right debates, there are larger, practical lessons to learn from Rawls in light of the recent revelations about American poverty.

First, despite their confirmation of poverty's prevalence and persistence, the statistics also show that poverty is not a lifelong condition for most Americans who encounter it. Just as they can fall into poverty for a spell, most Americans can climb out of it. What makes the climb easier, unfashionable though it may be to say so, is the existence of the variety of Rawlsian benefits that our society provides to the less fortunate. But for Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, the Earned Income Tax Credit, unemployment assistance, SNAP (food stamps) and the like, there is no question that there would be even more American poor, suffering even longer in poverty. For example, The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that without food stamps and other safety net initiatives, poverty would be double the current rate.

The second lesson from Rawls is an extrapolation from the first: if we can use mechanisms of the social safety net to alleviate and curtail poverty (which, after all, is exactly what they are there for), why not use these and other mechanisms to minimize and prevent poverty in the first place?

We know, for example, that one of the key determinants of economic success is education. Simply put, the better-educated you are, the less likely you are to be poor. Surely there is merit in focusing our vast resources on a phenomenon so integral to the American Dream.

On the principle, furthermore, that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, investments today in what matters for tomorrow (education and technical training in an increasingly knowledge-focused economy being obvious examples) will ultimately reduce the social burden of poverty in years to come. In the political shorthand of the moment, this is a plea for smart government rather than reflexive big government.

The final lesson of Rawls today is this: his theory was that we should order a society in the knowledge that we could be among its less fortunate; we must now organize ourselves with the knowledge that we or someone we hold dear will be among that group. That is the statistical reality of Rawls in America today.

Where half of a nation's citizens experience poverty at some point in their lifetimes, the just society must maintain means to minimize that poverty, do its best to reduce its incidence and severity, and prevent its recurrence. If we fail to do so, it will be more than a failure of policy - it will be a failure of our democracy as a whole.

We no longer need the thought experiment of a veil of ignorance to order the preferences of a just society; enlightened self-interest can show us the way.