March 18, 2015 by Paul Goldsmith
There is a concept, introduced by the philosopher John Rawls, called the “veil of ignorance”. Writing about distributive justice (who gets what), Rawls’ argument was that the best way to ensure everyone in society were to be treated fairly would be for politicians to make decisions from behind this veil. He imagined setting up a new society, in which a decision had to be made on the distribution of income and resources, including aspects such as rewards for the richest and safety nets for the poorest. If those setting up the society and deciding on those rewards were operating behind a ‘veil of ignorance’ in that they didn’t know whether they would be those on high income or amongst the very poorest, they would make sure that however they ended up, they would be rewarded fairly or protected by an adequate safety net. You can apply this to whether they would end up healthy or disabled too.
Instead, our politicians already know where they are in society. They are one of the best paid and have the best opportunities of anyone. Almost all of them are healthy too. Which is why the closure of the Independent Living Fund (ILF), one of the most important protections for disabled people, is such a disgrace. Brought in 30 years’ ago, the ILF has helped 18,000 of the most severely disabled people to live independently in their own homes and communities. It allows our fellow citizens to work or participate in the kinds of everyday activities most of us take for granted.
The point of the ILF was that it was worth a lot more than the ringfenced amount of money used for it. It provided a route to independence for those with severe disabilities, including learning disabilities, and was a sign of shift in how society viewed disabled people and disability in general. We owe it to those amongst us that are less fortunate to give them the opportunity to enjoy the same rights as all of us if we can. We owe it to them as supposedly decent people, but we also owe it to them because any of us, at any time, could be a crossing of the road or a sporting accident away from being one of them.
The Government argues that they are going to give the money to local authorities to “ensure disabled people get the targeted support they need”. But the guarantee of the money is lost. Councils are increasingly cash strapped, being one of the areas most affected by the pressure of coalition cuts, and they have already been redrawing eligibility criteria for disabled people to receive support. The ILF is not just about meeting a disabled person’s basic needs, it is more about helping them make the most of their lives, just like we would like to.
True liberalism, and we are supposed to be a liberal democracy so this is real net for all of us, should be about offering equality of opportunity to everyone, regardless of the condition so of their birth, or misfortunes of life. But as a government it is very difficult to do that unless you put yourself behind the veil of ignorance. Too many people in politics can’t do that, and we should all be shamed by it.