The Veil of Ignorance

As some of you who follow me on Twitter know, I spent the weekend in Kansas City with my grandfather, who had experienced an as-yet-to-be-diagnosed health crisis and was in the hospital. (Nothing is dire and he’s expected to make a full recovery and be discharged in the next week or so.) At home in Los Angeles, most of my hospital experience is with Los Angeles County Hospital, an enormous facility that is massively overloaded in trying to meet the health care needs of Los Angeles County’s indigent population. In Kansas City, I was spending time in the Rehabilitation Care wing of what seemed to be a very well funded private hospital. And the differences were monumental.

Los Angeles County Hospital serves about 39,000 inpatients a year, with over 150,000 emergency room visits a year. This is utterly massive, and has led to a lot of complaints about overcrowding, with allegations that emergency room visitors wait an average of 35 hours to be seen – sometimes without even having their vital signs taken. A recent LA Times story showed that likely because of administrative policy hiccups, a patient was admitted to another county hospital and was an inpatient for two days before being assigned a doctor. In another county facility, since closed down, a woman waiting to be seen in the ER bled out and died in the waiting room without being seen. Having spent some time at those hospitals, I can attest that while the relatively new buildings are pretty nice, the old building, in which a lot of care is still provided, feels like a rickety relic of the early 1970s, with sliding metal doors that make the patient rooms feel like drawers in a filing cabinet.

In contrast, this other hospital felt like a palace. There was free valet parking for outpatients. All of the rooms were private and spacious, with room for 9 visitors to fit inside and with a window looking out on trees in gorgeous fall colors. The nurses all knew my grandfather’s name, and his wife’s name, and my name, and my mom’s name. The emergency room in the facility had a gorgeous waiting room looking out into an interior courtyard with fountains and plantings and even a creek running through it. I visited that waiting room often, because that’s where the vending machine with the Diet Coke was, and I never saw more than a handful of people there. Certainly nobody was going to die there without being seen.

Describing the two hospitals like this, I can guess which one we would all choose for ourselves, our loved ones, and our friends. (The nice hospital, just to be clear. I’d rather be at the nice one.) But often when we’re making policies – especially policies for the health care of low-income people – policy makers are not thinking about how they would like to be taken care of, the facilities they would like to be in. They are making policies for other people, policies they know will never apply to them.

That’s why I’m such a big fan of the concept of the “veil of ignorance.” The idea comes from American philosopher John Rawls’ book Theory of Justice, considered an important text in political philosophy.  The veil requires a person to create a standard of justice without knowing what place or value they will have in that society. As Rawls described it:

Among the essential features of this situation is that no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does any one know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance.

I like this idea so much. This would require us to make health care policy without knowing whether we would have the most super expensive fancy health insurance policy possible, or have no health insurance and depend on the indigent care available through the county; without knowing whether we would have a disability or be in perfect health; without knowing any of the categories or identities we would be a part of.

It is, of course, impossible to think about policies without drawing from personal experience, but I believe that policymakers should do their best to assume this veil of ignorance. At the very least, they should consider how their policies will apply to and affect the most disadvantaged person possible, to understand the full scope of potential problems that could be created by the policy. Now if only we could get voters to look at things this way…

3 thoughts on “The Veil of Ignorance

  1. I love this idea so much. I haven’t read Rawls; I just got the cliffs-notes version from my dad, but I’ve thought about it often over the past few years as the gap between privileged and disadvantaged grows wider and wider.

  2. I love the idea but I hate the term “veil of ignorance”! Sadly, many politicians, and other people in power, literally do make decisions out of ignorance: ignorance of the realities of poverty and oppression that way too many people face daily. I like to dream that one day those with the power to write policy will use the standard of what a rich, straight, white, able-bodied, cisgendered, and otherwise overly privileged man would EXPECT and feel he DESERVES, and then make that the standard of care/benefits/etc given to everyone 🙂

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