In December 2011, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney wrote that the choice between electing a Republican candidate and reelecting President Obama would be a choice between an “Opportunity Society” and an “Entitlement Society.” According to Governor Romney, an “Entitlement Society” is one in which the “government provides every[one] the same or similar rewards, regardless of education, effort and willingness to innovate, pioneer or take risk,” while an “Opportunity Society” is one in which “free people…under a limited government choose whether or not to pursue education, engage in hard work, and pursue the passion of their ideas and dreams. If they succeed, they merit the rewards they are able to enjoy.” The assertion that we are headed towards an “Entitlement Society” is certainly questionable in light of increasing income inequality and the fact that many wealthy Americans pay fewer taxes as a proportion of their income than their employees do. Governor Romney himself enjoys a mere 13.9% tax on his $27 million income. Yet the whole concept of an Entitlement Society relies on the idea that different people have varying amounts of moral desert; though this view may be common, particularly among successful individuals such as Harvard students, it is ultimately based on false premises.
The Rawlsian conception of justice, which supports creating a fair society based on a social contract regulating human cooperation, could do much to inform our current policy debates. How do we determine the rules of a just social contract? John Rawls’s answer is that only people who are free of prejudice, especially the bias of self-interest, can write such a contract. Rawls tells us that a fair social contract should be created by individuals who are put behind a “veil of ignorance,” such that no one would know “his place in society, his class position or social status…nor…his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like.” Ignorant of their own interests, individuals would come to adopt the principle that “social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are to be of the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society.” No one would want to live in a society in which morally arbitrary factors such as genetics, social and family background, or sheer luck could entirely determine their life’s chances. Rather, they would favor they a society in which inequality exists only if it furthers the potential of people of all circumstances.
Why are these factors that lead to success morally arbitrary? Quite simply, because they are but of fortunate accidents of birth or social circumstance. So while Governor Romney talks about a society in which people “deserve” what they get, we cannot attribute moral desert to people when their assets are only minimally the result of their choices. Can someone choose to be born into his or her initial position in society? Can someone choose to be born with intelligence or a natural tendency to take risks and innovate, qualities that are biological and genetic in nature? Proponents of moral desert often claim that we choose how much effort we put into achieving our goals and that even those with natural and social assets could surely squander them. But upon closer examination, even effort is largely a product of be born into a family or an environment that cultivates the right attitude for hard work. Since that the factors that contribute to success are not of our own conscious choice, they morally arbitrary and should not be the sole determinants of our fortunes.
Thus, I favor an “Entitlement Society” for the United States, but a different kind of “entitlement” than the one Governor Romney suggests. We must reject moral desert based on merit in the distribution of the share of the social product, for “merit” is but winning the lottery of genetics, family background, and social circumstance. We should rather adopt the Rawlsian paradigm that the share of the social product individuals secure should be an “entitlement to legitimate expectations” under the rules of the social contract. As such, social and economic inequalities must benefit those who are the most disadvantaged: those who did not win the lottery of birth. While we do not deserve the rewards life brings us, we can make a claim to those rewards for fulfilling certain acts under the rules laid forth by the social contract. For example, a doctor would be paid well not because of his skills as a doctor or the effort he has put into becoming a doctor, but rather because paying a doctor an above-average salary would hypothetically benefit the least advantaged members of society by improving their medical care. Even then, the doctor is only compensated to the degree necessary to maximize the benefit to the least advantaged.
Our legitimate expectations would be those that exist under the social contract. So if under the Rawlsian conception a private equity specialist like Governor Romney should be paid $27 million a year (because for some reason this provides the greatest benefit to the least advantaged members of society), then we are obligated as a society to meet those legitimate expectations. But while Governor Romney would be entitled to this money, he would not deserve it. I do not begrudge success, but simply the arrogant notion of a moral claim to success. This arrogant notion is prevalent among our compatriots at Harvard, many of whom believe strongly that they are here out of their own merit. But this is false, for none of us chose to have the qualities that allowed us to join this esteemed institution. Therefore, we can hardly make a moral claim over our accomplishments. This is perhaps something to ponder, for many of us take for granted our “success” in life and place at Harvard.
So, I would challenge Governor Romney’s claim on Rawlsian grounds — that is, neither he nor anyone “deserves” anything, for everything is a product of factors beyond our conscious choice. So, perhaps we should have an “Entitlement Society”, a truly just society in which our institutions disregard these morally arbitrary factors in the distribution of shares of the social product. In this society, individuals would make claims to their shares not according to their intrinsic worth but according their entitlements under a social contract designed to ensure equality, fairness, and true freedom.