Monday, September 3, 2012

The Veil of Opulence, Impartial Observers, and False Consciousness


I found this New York Times article by University of Colorado, Boulder professor Benjamin Hale to be an interesting and well-framed discussion of a common, but corrupting, psychological phenomena in American political culture that he calls the "veil of opulence": the mental habit of putting ourselves in the shoes of the rich and famous and making decisions from that imagined social position.  Americans have the bad habit of imagining themselves to be millionaires, or of at least imagining that they, too, will someday be millionaires.  This has the effect of turning regular, struggling people into the unconscious allies of the very wealthy elites who are fleecing and exploiting them.  John Steinbeck said it concisely: “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”

Professor Hale hearkens back 40 years to the philosophy of Harvard political philosopher John Rawls, who gave us a modern version of liberal social contract theory that he called justice as fairness, which was first presented in his 1971 book A Theory of Justice.  Rawls was the most influential American political thinker of the second half of the 20th century, and even those who disagreed with him had to argue according to the terms that he laid down.  Justice as fairness, like other social contract theories, is based on the idea of an original agreement or sort of constitutional convention for the basic structure of society, the fundamental political, social, and economic institutions that determine people’s chances and expectations in life.  Rawls sets up a thought experiment to determine what would be the best way for a people to negotiate these basic rules so that they will be fair for everyone: he asks us to imagine that we negotiate under what he called a veil of ignorance, in which you undergo a sort of selective amnesia and forget who you are.  You don’t know any specific information about yourself or your social position or status: you don’t know your sex, race, generation, socio-economic class, occupation, wealth, strength, intelligence, talents, etc.  You also don’t know your religious preference, ethnic background, basic philosophy of life, or conception of the good life.  This amnesia under the veil of ignorance ensures that no one can twist the basic rules of society to their own advantage. 

Rawls says that in such a situation people would agree to two very egalitarian principles of justice: 1) the first guarantees each person equal basic rights and liberties, such as freedoms of thought and conscience, freedom of assembly, choice of occupation, etc.  2) The second principle deals with social and economic inequalities, and they must satisfy two conditions: a) they are attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity;  b) they must satisfy what Rawls called the difference principle: inequalities are to be to everyone’s advantage, in particular, they are to be to the (greatest) benefit of the least advantaged members of society.  Income would start from a baseline of equality, and any inequality must, to quote John F. Kennedy, be “a rising tide that lifts all boats.”

The graph illustrates the difference between a distribution under the difference principle and an unregulated capitalist distribution.  Capitalism allows potentially infinite income inequalities, in which some rise above the line of strict equality and become fabulously wealthy while others fall bellow that line into absolute penury.  Note that on the capitalism line, some people have absolutely nothing: zero property and income.  No one under the veil of ignorance, who didn’t know which position they would end up in when the veil was lifted, would choose a capitalist distribution for their society.  The risk is too great that once the veil is lifted you will end up impoverished, with a ruined life and little opportunity to improve it.  Instead, people would choose the difference principle: inequalities are allowed when, and only when, they raise the income of all, including those at the absolute bottom, as, for example, when profits are distributed widely to all through union contracts and government social programs.  Note that while inequalities still exist on the difference principle line, the poorest of the poor never fall to zero or even below the baseline of equality, but instead even their lives are improved by whatever inequalities do exist, because those inequalities are channeled in such a way to benefit everyone.

Rawls thus provides a strong justification for progressive liberalism: if you didn’t know what class you’d be born into, this is the kind of society you’d choose. Why ? Because you’re most likely to be born into the lower or middle ranks that benefit from strong unions and cooperatives, social security, public health care, public education, college loans, unemployment insurance, and social welfare, rather than into the upper class1% who have no need of such programs.  For Rawls the specific programs can vary and be adapted to different places and cultures, as long as they conform to his two principles of justice.  


Rawls seemed to think that the idea of fairness that drove his theory was something that was already implicit in western liberal political cultures: there once was a time when the ideas of fair play, good sportsmanship, and giving the other guy a turn were much stronger in our society.  I think that the competitive economic ideology of conservatism and libertarianism that has spread since the Reagan 80s has considerably weakened that sense of fairness: the Wall Street ethic that “greed is good,” the silly cowboy ideal of “rugged individualism,” capitalism’s erosion of community and social trust, and the factionalization of our politics have all promoted the pursuit of self-interest over the common good and norms of fairness.

Hale contrasts the veil of ignorance with his veil of opulence: Americans, instead of mentally putting themselves into a position where they don’t know their class and wealth, always instead imagine themselves in the shoes of rich people.  Think of the old TV show, “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”  It’s a distortion of our natural powers of sympathy, as when we imagine ourselves to be in the shoes of other people and feel ourselves experiencing what they experience and suffering what they suffer, becoming what Adam Smith called an “impartial spectator.”  The veil of opulence twists this by encouraging people to mainly put themselves into the shoes of rich people.  Consequently, the political decision making of non-rich people is distorted away from fair justice based in an impartial point of view, and instead made from a very partial point of view, one that benefits those who already have everything they could need:

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, and we have just seen the latest instance of it in the Tax Policy Center’s comparison of President Obama’s tax plan versus Mitt Romney’s tax plan.  “He’s asking you to pay more so that people like him can pay less,” Obama said last week, “so that people like me pay less.” Last Monday he drove the point even harder, saying that Romney’s plan is like “Robin Hood in reverse.” And certainly, Romney’s selection on Saturday of Paul Ryan as his running mate will keep this issue in the forefront of our political discourse.

I wish Hale had explored how the veil of opulence came to exist in people’s minds, although that would require an exploration of false consciousness, advertising, modern celebrity culture, and consumerism that’s probably beyond the scope of a brief NYT piece.  If you want that, you’ll have to get it from the mid-twentieth century thinkers of the Frankfurt School such as Herbet Marcuse and Theodor Adorno.  I would also recommend Guy DeBord’s Society of the Spectacle.  The Left will continue to struggle in a political environment where most people are in the bad habit of thinking that they are “temporarily embarrassed millionaires,” and we have yet to develop effective tools for lifting the veil of false consciousness that modern capitalism propagates, through advertising, the media culture, and political ideology, to keep people thinking that their interests are advanced by the parties of the rich.  Developing those tools is perhaps our most pressing practical political task. 


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