There are a few lessons that we can learn from this. The first is that we vastly underestimate the level of inequality that we have in America. Our society is far more uneven in terms of wealth than we believe it is. Second, we want much more equality than both what we have and what we think we have. Apparently, when asked in a way that avoids hot-button terms, misconceptions, and the level of wealth people currently possess, Americans are actually in agreement about wanting a more equal distribution of wealth. In fact, the vast majority of Americans prefer a distribution of wealth more equal than what exists in Sweden, which is often placed rhetorically at the extreme far left in terms of political ideology—embraced by liberals as an ideal society and disparaged by conservatives as an overreaching socialist nanny state.
A third lesson concerns the political gap between Democrats and Republicans: Given the extraordinarily polarized and derisive rhetoric flying back and forth between Democrats and Republicans, one would think there was an insurmountable gap between their positions. So how is it possible that we found so little difference between them in our study? One reason for this could be our inability to separate our ideology from our current state of wealth. Our interests tend to color our view both of how things are and how they should be. Another reason could be politicians, who, in order to rally people to their side, try to generate feelings of greater difference and opposition—and therefore conflict—than actually exist. From this perspective one could claim that politicians obfuscate similarities by using galvanizing but elusive terms like “small government,” “tax relief,” and “freedom.”
Rawls’ veil of ignorance deals with such superficial and irrelevant influences on what we think by prompting people to consider all possible socio-economic situations rather than just their own and the interests and ideologies that come along with that. The veil of ignorance accomplishes something similar to blind taste testing. Take wine, for instance. If a person knows the appellation and price, and realizes that French wine is usually preferable to Finnish, his or her perception and opinion of how good each wine tastes will be influenced by these preconceived notions. Similarly, when we express opinions about politics and life in general, we can’t help but be influenced by our own varying degrees wealth and ignorance of others’ lives. The veil of ignorance works to separate our core beliefs from the biases and prejudices we develop over time and through the subjective experience of being part of a certain class and demographic.
As for what this means about changing the level of inequality, which from our study seems almost unanimously objectionable, there are essentially two paths: education and taxation. Improving education works in a sense to change the input into the economy—better-educated workers are more resourceful and employable, and can move up the economic ladder. Changing taxation deals with the output—those who prosper pay more into the system than those without the same benefits. Our study doesn’t tell us anything about which of these two approaches to reducing inequality would be preferable, but in practical terms, bridging the huge gap between what we currently have and what we want to have would require a mixture of both. Our study also doesn’t deal with how to bring what people say they want under the veil of ignorance into line with what they’re willing to do when it’s their money and resources that are about to be distributed. It is one thing to get people to tell us what kind of society the would want to join, and another to get them part with their money in order to create that society.