View From a Height
Commentary from the Mile High City
Sunday, December 29, 2002
I've also been reading Rabbi Daniel Lapin's Thou Shall Prosper, his effort to ground business success and the whole system of Democratic Capitalism in the Jewish ethical and religious tradition. In it, and interesting passage paraphrasing Warren Buffett:

Let's say it was 24 hours before you were born, and a genie appeared and said, "You look like a winner. I have enormous confidence in you, and white I'm going to do is let you set the rules of the society into which you will be born. You can set the economic rules and the social rules, and whatever rules you set will apply during your lifetime and your children's lifetimes.

And you'll say, "Well, that's nice, but what's the catch?"

And the Genie says, "Here's the catch. You don't know if you're going to be born rich or poor, white or black, male or female, able-bodied or infirm, intelligent or retarded. So all you know is that you're going to get one ball out of a barrel with, say, 5.8 billion balls in it. You're going to participate in what I call the ovarian lottery. It's the most important thing that will happen to you in your life, but you have no control over it. It's going to determing far more that your grades at school or anything else that happens to you. Now, what rules do you want to have?"

Now, quoting Lapin, "Buffett predicts that you're going to want a system that creates ever more wealth....[one that]provides incentive for the most able and creative people to keep working long after they no longer need to work."

If this sounds like Rawls's classic "veil of ignorance" thought experiment, it is. The guys over at Powerline had a discussion a couple of weeks ago when Rawls died, focusing in the notion that philosophical systems can be put to arbitrary political use. The liberals had just assumed (along with Rawls) that the veil of ignorance implied a liberal, socialist system. They assumed that people would be substantially risk-averse. Mr. Buffett is not a reckless investor. Yet he is, in this instance, more willing to tolerate the risk of inequality in return for a system that gives him a maximum chance to succeed. One might argue that, having succeeded in this system, he obviously sees its vrtues over its flaws, but I'd wager that the majority of Americans, at a fundamental level, agree with him.

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