Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Rawlsian Test for Policy Making

How does the Government make decisions and policies affecting its citizens? What are the motivations behind policy makers favoring one set of alternatives over another? Are there any specific normative guidelines or thumb rules to which these decisions or policies are subject to? This assumes great importance given the profound impact of even minor policy decisions of the Government on the lives of many people.

Former Harvard Professor, the late John Rawls, outlined an interesting principle in his famous book, "A Theory of Justice". Rawls' concern was with the rules governing the distribution of what he called "the primary social goods" in any society. Primary social goods consist of the basic civic rights and the minimum socio-economic advantages necessary for a citizen to start his life at an equal footing with anybody else. He defines an "original position", before the rules and conventions governing our society were formulated, from where individuals have to make a decision about the distribution of the primary social goods.

"No one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance." (Rawls)

From behind the "veil of ignorance", the individual in "original position" would necessarily select two principles of justice which would create the structure of the society - Liberty Principle and Difference Principle. Under the Liberty Principle, "each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for others". The Difference Principle postulates that social and economic inequalities are to be arranged in such a way that
a) there should be a "fair equality of opportunity" for all citizens in access to offices and positions
b) they should be inclined towards the least-advantaged members of society (maximin rule)

The "maximin" rule (maximizing the minimum gain), advocates that given the choice of defining the rules that would govern the socio-economic structure of the new society, every individual would make a choice that produces the maximum gain for the worst off. This is understandable since the individuals in the "original position", behind the "veil of ignorance", would not be aware of even their own strengths and weaknesses. They would therefore have to hedge themselves against the worst possible eventual ordering of individual attributes and the society.

To the extent that the forces of naure will anyway favor those already endowed, with more advantages, our concern should be with trying to take care of those lesser advantaged and those disadvantaged. This can be met only by providing equality of opportunity for all individuals at any point of time, or atleast at the beginning, so that anybody disadvantaged due to factors beyond his control, is also given an opportunity to overcome his handicap and achieve any status he aspires to. This is the basic minimum requirement for any individual in the society to strive for improving his condition. In its absence, the privileged becomes more privileged and the under-privileged become worse off, and in the process the society stagnates.

Any Government policy on education, health care, land reforms, or other welfare and development issues should necessarily be subjected to this test. In a world where every individual has varying natural and social endowments, it is only natural that there should be serious problems with access to basic opportunities. It is therefore the cardinal principle of natural justice and good governance that all the citizens should have equal access to every service and facility offered by the Government. The maximin rule in the difference principle, is the ideological justification for government interventions like subsidies, affirmative action, progressive taxation etc, which are essential for ensuring equality of opportunity. It is the only way of ensuring that government policy does not get captured by vested interests.

Our policymakers, both politicians and bureaucrats, ought to keep this vital principle in mind while formulating any policy or taking a decision. They ought to be asking the question, "Does this policy (or decision) promote the maximin principle"? In fact, this principle should be a necessary condition for any policy or decision.

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