A Political Fantasy: The Veil of Amnesia

Let's forget our political identities, but remember our principles.

Posted Aug 08, 2013


I like the veil of ignorance. It encourages us to see the value of social institutions that help to equalize the inequities that people – through no fault of their own – are born into. Here, however, I would like to propose the value of another garment: the veil of amnesia. This is less a political philosophy than a political fantasy, but again the idea is a simple one. And it doesn’t require that you agree with me about the veil of ignorance.

We live, particularly in the United States, in hyper-partisan times. Congress is deeply polarized, with the House and the Senate containing historically high numbers of extremist politicians on both the left and the right (see this amazing graphic by XKCD). Politics has always been a cutthroat and bloody sport, but it is increasingly a team sport as well. This makes it more dangerous. If people adopt a rigid us-versus-them mentality, everything becomes a competition, everything is zero-sum. When this happens, we stop thinking about how we want our society to work. As long as we’re winning and they are losing, the policies we enact are largely irrelevant (see an experimental demonstration of affiliation-driven policy preferences here). We become a society of political victory rather than political principle (more evidence, a classic by Geoff Cohen, here).

The problem here is not one of disagreement. Disagreement in politics is what distinguishes democracy from dictatorship. The problem is that our disagreements are driven so strongly by our identities – am I a Republican or a Democrat, a liberal or a conservative – rather than by our principles.

The veil of amnesia would solve this. My political fantasy is that tomorrow morning all of us wake up with absolutely no memory for what political party we identity with, for which politicians we like, or for which specific policies we support. We wouldn’t remember that our family has always voted Republican, or that we adore Hillary Clinton and hate Newt Gingrich. We wouldn’t recall our position on public health care, the tax code, gun control, gay rights, even abortion. What we would remember, however – and this is critical – are our political principles. If you value individual freedoms above all else, you would remember that. If you think that equality is the foundation of a righteous society, you would remember that. If you hold dear a right to privacy or think that society’s most important job is to keep its citizens safe, you would remember that. Our principles we keep; everything else is lost behind the veil.

Think about what would happen in this amnesic state. We would actually have to start thinking about how policies, programs and laws relate to our principles. We would have to evaluate the rhetoric of political candidates based on our values. If you value equality and don’t remember the official liberal position on school vouchers, you would really have to consider whether these programs can help disadvantaged people. If you want a safe and secure society and don’t remember the typical law-and-order position on gun control, you would really have to evaluate whether unrestricted access to weapons increases or decreases public safety. If you think that privacy is a fundamental right and don’t recall how much you like President Obama, then you would perhaps think more carefully about the ramifications of the NSA data collection programs. And so on…

This is just a fantasy. There is no way of actually inducing such a selective and useful form of amnesia. What we can do, however, is decide to play politics less as a team sport. We can try to stop using group identity and official liberal or conservative positions as heuristics for deciding what policies, ideas and politicians we support. Without actually forgetting our political affiliations, we can decide to start thinking more deeply and independently. When people put on the veil of ignorance, they are not actually ignorant of their position in society. But imagining that one doesn’t know one’s standing is a useful aid to thought. So it is with the veil of amnesia.

If you are confident that your current party affiliation and policy preferences are derived entirely from the principles you hold dear, then there is absolutely no risk in this. Adopting the veil of amnesia and reevaluating politicians and their policies in terms of your values will lead you back exactly where you started. If, however, you are concerned that this exercise might lead you somewhere else – toward new allegiances and preferences - then you have a difficult and important choice to make. Is your party identity more important than seeing where your values take you? Is your position on gun control or vouchers or health care or tax cuts worth keeping if it violates your deeper principles? Or should your principles come first, and your support for policies and politicians follow?

To me the answer is obvious. Here’s to selective forgetfulness! May we forget what we think we think about politics, but forever remember our principles.


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Copyright Dominic J. Packer, 2013. All rights reserved.