If I don’t know which piece of cake I’m going to get, I’m more likely to cut fairly than if I do.

The world, as a cake, is very unevenly cut – look at it.

Global GDP Cake

History suggests that uneven distribution of capital is sought for. In International Relations we talk about the balance of power or rising powers. It’s almost every day that someone quakes because soon China will regain it’s world number one position after a 500 year slumber. So it seems self evident that uneven distribution is sought for by the powerful, and fought against by the weak.

In day-to-day life it’s the same. Most of us are individualistic. We have been trained this way by society because, short of a first-date, your dinner is not bought for you. To survive you must look after yourself (and your children) above others. If you had to cut the cake into four pieces, and you knew you were going to get first pick, you would cut yourself a massive slice, and then leave three small pieces behind. Life doesn’t work like that though. You didn’t choose your slice, nor did anyone else, nor any supernatural force (as if you are a chosen special-case, or doomed soul).

Picture this impossible situation: you have not been born – you don’t know where you will be born, who your parents will be, how much money you’ll have, or what your life chances will be. Indeed your conception of the world is covered by a ‘veil of ignorance‘. Now, all of a sudden, you have the power to decide for everyone how wealth will be distributed. How much do you give to who? Equal amounts to all so that luck doesn’t play a role? – or perhaps gamble? lots to some and far less to the rest; you might be rich, you might be destitute. I can tell you the result of this actual research: most of us choose a fair distribution.

The Lottery of Life

You can apply this conception (a little more realistically) again by swapping wealth for talents / disabilities. You do not know if you will be born into a wheelchair or as Usain Bolt. You can also do this with race, creed, height, hair colour, everything.

What’s the implication? Well basically, next-to-nobody would choose this global or national situation we are ‘in’, yet plenty of people get in the way of development goals globally or look poorly upon taxation domestically. (p.s. I don’t mean we should give to charity, in fact please do not give to charities. This creates a horrible cycle. I condone properly administered redistributive taxation as a form of compensation to the people with small slices).

This conceptual situation combines two ideas from John Rawls – one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th Century. He calls this the ‘veil of ignorance’ and the ‘original position‘. As you can see, the ‘veil of ignorance’ is not knowing where you will be born or what the situation is; and the ‘original position’ shows that your situation from birth is unfairly determinate to the rest of your life – something no-one would choose. Talents and fortunes fall like manna from above, as do you, so there’s no telling how good or bad your life will be.

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