The Maine House of Representatives recently passed LD 1600 to show its displeasure for the idea of a Maine Woods National Monument. I asked a Legislator who voted for this measure why he did so when the polling data consistently show that Mainers, including a majority in the Northern counties of Maine, support the idea of a National Park in the Maine woods, the outcome a National Monument declaration will likely lead to. His response was terse: “The people of Millinocket area voted this down… I believe in local control.” (Of course, none of the proposed park is in the town of Millinocket, but that is beside the point here.)
The idea of “local control” is typical of how we think of public policy making in American Democracy. We decide which interest has priority for us in a particular policy area and then support the policies that respond to that particular interest. Presidential candidates are often characterized in terms of their appeal to voters of various interest groupings – gender, race or ethnicity, age, education level, region of the country, marital status, etc. Indeed the very structure of the Federal Constitution was designed to balance interests using a system of countervailing powers. As Madison explained in Federalist Paper No. 51, we needed a system of checks and balances to control the effects of power held by various interests.
There is a way to think about public policy as more than just the interests of specific groups battling to see which will prevail in the political contest. My inspiration for this is the American philosopher John Rawls. In his magnum opus A Theory of Justice, Rawls worked out the rules we would need to adopt to establish a just society. There is much in Rawls’ work that is profoundly important (and challenging to digest), but I want to focus on one small part of this argument.
Rawls considered how we might choose the rules to establish justice in our society when everyone has a set of interests. How might we transcend our own interests? He suggested that we conduct a thought experiment where we are part of a convention to fix rules, in his case rules for justice in society. All participants in such a convention would be behind a “veil of ignorance.” This is really hard to imagine. They would not know their own age, race, gender, class, education level. They would be ignorant of their own intelligence, tolerance for risk, and even of the generation they exist in. Ignorance of their self-interest would make participants sure to protect to themselves from the adoption of rules that might affect various interest groups. Self-interest becomes interest in effects on everyone.
Rawls did not address the use of the veil of ignorance in public policy realms, but we can think how this approach might change our policy making. Adopting a veil of ignorance in making policy is not the same as empathy of a particular group. It is often said that to understand people we need to walk a mile in their shoes. The Rawlsian approach is different. In it we don’t know in whose shoes we are walking and our ignorance will induce us to adopt policies that are more likely to be fair to everyone.
Let’s return to a Maine Woods National Park. For most of us the first question we ask about a new park is, what does that do for us? But try to imagine how we might think about a park if we were ignorant of whether we live in Millinocket or Portland. What if we did not know whether we were woods workers or software engineers, hikers or hunters, or whether we were born in 1952 or 2052? This is hard to do honestly, our self-interest cannot help but creep in. But even if we do adopt the veil of ignorance about our interests, it requires a lot of careful analysis to think about what the best policy is for everyone.
When I try to use this one issue as an exercise in thinking behind a veil of ignorance, a Maine Woods National Park still makes sense to me. The land at issue is largely out of commercial timber production, paper mills seem not to be coming back to the Penobscot River valley, a park would diversify the regional economy and recreational opportunities, and local communities elsewhere that have gotten new parks since the end of World War II almost universally come to like the change.
Beyond the National Park issue, when I think about political candidates or major public policy issues, I try the Rawlsian approach when deciding what I think is the right thing to do. This type of thinking is challenging. How can I be ignorant of my age, race, generation, etc.? Sometimes though, being more ignorant can be a good thing. It can help us get beyond just asking what is in it for me.