Play egalitarian roulette - with a blindfoldby Margaret Drabble / January 22, 2015 / Leave a comment
If I ruled the world, I would go for global equality. I’ve been going on about this, to absolutely no avail, for many decades, but this would be my chance to make it work. I’d like to put all the world’s assets and cash into a big pot and shake them up and redistribute them like confetti, but I can see that’s not very practical. So I’d compromise and put into play John Rawls’s notion of the “veil of ignorance.” In my interpretation (though not perhaps in his) this would involve asking each and every one of us to choose, blindfolded, into what kind of society we would wish to be born, if we didn’t have any prior knowledge of who we would be or where in that society we would find ourselves—the top, the middle or the bottom of the heap. This would lead to a lot of hard thought about social justice, and some massive redesigning of the status quo in every land on Earth. Out would go grotesque and increasing inequality of income between and within the developed and undeveloped world; out would go deviously greedy, incompetent and mendacious bankers; out would go tax avoidance by clever corporations and the favourable tax status of English private schools. In would come clean water, healthcare, toilets for everyone and assisted dying for those who really want it.
The notion of every single person on this planet being given a chance to play this game of egalitarian roulette fills me with a dizzy delight.
There are some minor problems: at what age should this choice be offered to us, and would all societies have to be put on hold for redesign while awaiting the outcome of the global ballot? There’d be at least a generation of chaos while things sorted themselves out. Rawls may or may not go into this, but luckily I don’t have to. It’s rather like the choice that used to confront those who seriously believed in the resurrection of the body: at what age should we be resurrected and reborn? Most Christian theologians and Renaissance artists decided on the handsome age of 30, though Stanley Spencer was more lenient to the plump and the middle-aged and allowed them to clamber out of their graves looking quite homely.
Let’s not be put off by practical details such as the age of electoral consent. Let’s imagine that we are able to set up a glorious day of universal franchise when every soul shall wait in line to choose the shape of things to come. I see them, the endless multitudes, their eyes gently and humbly bandaged with the white veil of unknowing, patiently waiting to cast their votes for a fairer world. Maybe a few maverick warlords and mega-magnates and power freaks and religious potentates, unable to conceive of a world where they personally would cease to be of the elite, would vote for the world as they know it, but they would be massively outnumbered by the hewers of wood and the drawers of water, by the slaves and the bondsmen, by the hungry and the halt, and by those dependent on ever more unaffordable medication. The numbers would prevail. The unvanquishable numbers, in Percy Shelley’s immortal phrase.
Justice as fairness! That would be our Rawlsian slogan. The world would be redesigned, by common consent. Wealth would not trickle down from rich to poor (which it signally fails to do in practice, though some still cling to the theory); it would flow freely from free nation to free nation, and cascade down the redeemed generations. No more food banks and sweat shops and gulags: there is enough for all, enough to go round, and unless we really are a hateful, murderous Hobbesian species, we can surely envisage a fairer future on a beautiful planet. “Earth might be fair and all men glad and wise,” as the old undaunted cry of my favourite hymn has it.
I see my language as potential ruler-for-the-day is becoming increasingly biblical, and indeed it has been pointed out to me that my brand of egalitarianism is at heart religious, not political; utopian rather than pragmatic. So be it. I am not of any religious faith, and you don’t need a god to believe in fairness. So let’s go for massive, ab initio redistribution. And if we can’t manage that, here’s a more modest proposal: compulsory voting in the UK, as they have in Australia. Margaret Drabble is a novelist. She was awarded the Golden PEN Award in 2011 for “a lifetime’s distinguished service to literature”