A Different Kind of Veil of Ignorance


I read an opinion piece in The New York Times this weekend about a parent observing his eleven-year old son developing a vision for how a fictional planet could be best governed and managed, as a part of a COVID-era home schooling assignment.

Watching the homework evolve, the author explained his son’s obsession with, “creating a system of governance that was both efficient and incorruptible,” pondering that this was at least in part related to what the child has been experiencing as he observes life, absorbs media content and seeks to interpret the reactions to all of this by his own family network. He also juxtaposed the young constitutionalist’s previous interest in young adult dystopian fiction with this more reality-based exercise in social organization and jurisprudence. The boy’s vision was less about spaceships and aliens and more about rule of law aimed at effective decision-making and fairness.

While the eleven-year old likely didn’t know it, this exercise has strong echoes of liberal American political philosopher John Rawls, who, in his own efforts to dissect moral human and social behavior, envisioned the possibilities of free institutions, civic unity, and legitimate uses of political power.

Rawls’ developed the notion of a veil of ignorance – a conceptual approach aimed at ensuring that decisions made by individuals, and by individuals working collectively, should be developed by people who would be ignorant of what their personal circumstances might be in a given scenario. So a person tasked with developing a model for a community,  society, or country would not know when drafting the laws, tenets and institutions whether they would be male or female, black or white, or religious or atheist, when living in that polity, under those rules.

Not knowing how you yourself could personally be situated in terms of socio-economic circumstances would increase the likelihood that systems would be derived in a fair, just, objective, and egalitarian way. For example, one would be less likely to propose economic structures that reinforce patriarchal systems if one was not certain whether they might be a female in that society. Or, one might be less inclined to favor laws relate to the privatization of fresh water supplies if they were not certain that they would be living in a society where clean water is always taken for granted.

I’ve contrasted this reminder of Rawls’ philosophizing with the “deal” made by two political party leaders on how to divide up the city of Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and how to begin to finally divide up higher-level political positions. Mostar hasn’t had local elections in over a decade as a result of the parties’ inability to implement a 2010 constitutional court decision that annulled the city statute and part of the election law. The ruling parties couldn’t agree on the rules, and so as a result, citizens were deprived of the right to a local level vote for over 10 years. Now, without public consultation or open deliberation, these two parties have apparently decided on the rule and division they want. The lack of transparency in the “deal” lends a very different sort of veil of ignorance to the whole scenario, especially as foreign diplomats praise this non-transparent, non-participatory, non-civic “deal,” hashed out far from the public square, and behind closed doors.

It remains to be seen how the  details of the deal will be implemented in practice, but if the parties have agreed on it then it doesn’t really matter what people in Mostar or elsewhere think. This is the essence of the partitocracy that defines the country; party trumps demos in a trend that is disturbingly familiar elsewhere, from Spain to the US, where one’s decision to wear a MAGA hat or a face mask is now an immediate sign of presumed political party preference.

The two political parties that hashed out this deal will claim it will ensure effective power-sharing. However, two and a half decades have shown that power-sharing driven by political parties results in unaccountable power allocation, divorced from accountability. Combined with a history of political party-aligned patronage that determines one’s employment prospects, or success in winning tenders, state and party capture becomes the norm.

This method of decision making is the polar opposite of Rawls’ moral proposal. Rather than being ignorant of whether one may be rich or poor, male or female, or Bosniak, Croat, Serb or Other, power-allocation deals in Bosnia are only about knowing what you are, and what you have to be.  It is the worst combination of identity politics and  zero-sum essentialism. If a Bosniak party is allocated one seat in a public company, a Croat will be allocated another. If one party “gets” a director position, the other gets to be the deputy. Locking in power regardless of a vote, regardless of a census, regardless of the success or lack of success in governing – none of it matters if the system is rigged. This is not unique to Bosnia. We are seeing this play out through blatant gerrymandering in the US, and it is common in other peace cartels, such as  Lebanon.  It is about structuring a system based on knowing exactly who gets what in advance, and in ensuring that votes to further support this fait accompli are secured through either blatant or subtle vote buying, voter suppression, or electoral fraud.

I’ve long wanted to see what a group of students in Mostar, or in Sarajevo, Banja Luka or Brčko might come up with for a method of governance in their country if given the conceptual framework of Rawls’ veil. How would they want society to work if they didn’t know what label they or their parents seemed to carry, how or if they or their neighbors worshipped, and whether or not they had contacts in influential positions? I suspect that such a youth-driven vision of the future would be very different than the deals being brokered by the adults in the room, who continue to be shaped by a different kind of veil of ignorance that has shaped their approach to politics for a generation.