John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice introduced a memorable thought experiment related to the nature of a just society. Rawls asked what principles would we chose to regulate the basic structure of society if we had to chose those them from behind a “veil of ignorance” as to our own position in that society. One of those was the “difference principle,” that is, that economic (and social) inequalities, to the extent that they exist, must be relatively advantageous to the most unfortunate members of society vs. a strict egalitarian distribution of wealth and income.

In a recent article (“How Americans view wealth and inequality“), behavioral economist Dan Ariely reviews data from a survey in which Americans were asked how much inequality there should be in society:

… we described to people Rawls’ definition, the veil of ignorance, and the idea they could end up anywhere. And we said: What society would you like to create? How much wealth? How would you like to distribute the wealth? And it turns out people created a society that is much more equal than any society on Earth. It was much more equal than Sweden. […] In fact, when we did this experiment another way and we showed people two distributions of wealth, one based on the wealth distribution in the US and the other based on the wealth distribution that is more equal than Sweden, 92% of Americans picked the improved Swedish distribution. So this suggests to me that when people take a step away from their own position and their own current state, and when people look at society in general terms, in abstract terms, Americans want a much more equal society.

This conclusion doesn’t follow.

If equality is the only criterion that is supposed to matter in the shaping of the kind of society we want, we forget that even Rawls insisted “each person has an equal claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic rights and liberties.” In practice, maintaining an antecedently established pattern of distribution of wealth and income over time will necessary involve the systematic violation of those basic rights and liberties by those social institutions with the power to shape economic inequalities, i.e., by governments. If Americans really wanted a society even more egalitarian than Sweden, how much more aggressively would they want their government to work to redistribute income from the wealthy to the poor? It is doubtful that the interviews that Ariely refers to measured the value of that variable.

Perhaps a better question would have been “would you prefer a society that was more equal, in terms of the distribution of wealth and income, even if that meant you would be penalized by society in proportion to your economic success in life, have your wealth confiscated by the government, and have your hard-earned income taxed away from you and given to those who are not entitled to it?

Putting the question this way (and I admit it’s a bit of a loaded question) highlights the problem with asking questions in a vacuum, then drawing inferences from the responses that fail to reintroduce the relevant context that would give those responses meaning. In short: Garbage in, garbage out.