Equity &

Rawlsian Ethics

The term "equity" comes up often in relation to Yucca Mountain, but for the socioeconomic researchers who consulted NWPO, equity has special meaning that is not as benign as the word might seem. It is the linkage of the equity with a philosophy called Rawlsian Ethics that has consequences far beyond the simple meaning of that word.

After the Kemeny Commission released its report on the accident at Three Mile Island, the socioeconomic researchers who later became the core of Mountain West tackled other subjects related to nuclear waste management. Roger Kasperson edited a work titled "Equity Issues in Radioactive Waste Management", which showed the continuing evolution of these workers towards an egalitarian framework for analyzing such issues. Running behind the equity issue, however, was a new philosophy that had only recently appeared in academic circles.

John Rawls in his seminal work, A Theory of Justice, hypothesized two principles which he felt formed the basis of a new global political philosophy:

First: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.

Second: social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone's advantage, and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all.

[John Rawls, A Theory Of Justice, Harvard University Press, 1971, p60]

These seemingly innocuous lines have touched off a thunderstorm of academic debate since they were penned in 1971, but only recently has this theory begun to seep down towards the common culture. The application of these principles at Yucca Mountain by political consultants to NWPO has proved to be a bold social experiment. Rawlsian ethics is exceedingly new, less than twenty-five years old and untested except as an abstract academic philosophy. Nevada is evidently being used as an unwitting guinea pig on which to test this theory.

Fears of nuclear energy and of Yucca Mountain have no legal weight unless there exists some fundamental moral right that places these fears above other considerations. For example, most people fear taxes, but this fear is not alone sufficient to defend oneself from the IRS in court. Similarly, a fear of Yucca Mountain alone is not adequate to legally halt its construction. Rawlsian Ethics, however, in essence assumes that each individual has veto power over the actions of his fellow man, for "social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are . . . reasonably expected to be to everyone's advantage . . ."

This is also, of course, the definition of decentralization, the political theory. Rawlsian ethics requires power to be dispersed, i.e. decentralized to the least common denominator, the least powerful individual. Consequently, equity issues, decentralization and Rawlsian ethics are all sister philosophies. Converting the discussion of Yucca Mountain from a question of whether a centralized repository makes technical sense to an "equity issue" (i.e. whether it decentralizes risk in a Rawlsian sense) is thus a critical question.

Obviously Yucca Mountain is not fair, it does not evenly or equitably distribute risks or costs among America's population. If America were a pure democracy, we could have a vote on the issue and decide on the basis of our collective fears whether Yucca Mountain (or even such rights as free speech and the pursuit of liberty) should continue. In Nevada many people believe it is their inalienable right to be able to vote whether to accept or reject Yucca Mountain.

However, America is not a pure democracy but a republic, with a democratically elected representative government. This is more than mere semantics, political philosophers and our founding fathers well understood that pure democracies are chaotic and self destructive. We are a nation first ruled by law and then by democratic processes, not the other way around. Equity as envisioned in both Rawlsian and decentralist theories is would reverse our legal priorities, creating unfettered democracy in which small minorities are given veto rights over majoritarian decisions.

A critique of Rawls by Robert Paul Wolff parallels the criticism of a number of other authors regarding Rawls Theory of Justice:

The . . . . question we must ask, following the guideline of Rawls' principles, is whether there are other, entirely different sets of economic arrangements that, while serving the fundamental purposes of production and reproduction of goods and services, will generate inequality surpluses, the feasible distribution of which would raise the expectations of the least advantaged representative man above the level that can be achieved under our present arrangements by redistributing the existing inequality surplus. I apologize to the reader for the complexity of that sentence, but the question Rawl's theory requires us to ask is very complicatedly hypothetical. I can think of a number of ways to organize the growing of wheat or the assembly of automobiles -both of which, however, are merely small-scale or micro-examples from Rawls point of view. But when I try to form a usable notion of alternatives to our present total set of economic arrangements, my mind can do no better than to rehearse the arrangements that have actually existed in some society or other - feudalism, slave-labor farming, hunting and gathering, state capitalism, collectivist socialism, and so forth. After eliminating those arrangements (slavery, for example) that violate portions of Rawl's principles other than the difference principle, I am to imagine how each of the remaining candidates would work out under the conditions of technology, resource availability, and actual or potential labor skill level obtaining in America today. Then I must gauge the size (if any) of the inequality surplus thus generated, and estimate the effect of the most favorable feasible redistribution on the reasonable expectations of the least advantaged representative man. Finally, Rawls tells me to order all the alternative sets of arrangements under consideration according to the magnitude of the expectations of the least advantaged. I now presumably know which alternatives are most just, and which less just, than present-day America, and the last step is simply to shift to the number one candidate on the list.

The manifest vagueness of these calculations and estimations has a very important consequence for Rawl's theory. Inevitably, one finds oneself construing the difference principle as a pure distribution principle. One simply stops asking how the goods to be distributed actually come to be in existence. . . . . [Wolff, Robert Paul; Understanding Rawls, Princeton University Press, p199]

The reason it is necessary to understand Rawlsian ethics is because Rawlsian principles are being applied to all of us as unknowing guinea pigs, not only at Yucca Mountain but in the national political arena as well. The impact of Rawlsian ethics on the Yucca Mountain issue is substantial:

1) The fixation of the state's socioeconomic researchers on risk perception rather than risk analysis is a Rawlsian perspective which assumes all actions should be determined by the least advantaged members of society, (generally those who perceived risks have made most fearful).

2) The refusal by the State of Nevada to accept benefits makes sense only in relation to Rawlsian ethics in which the good of the least individual takes precedent over the utilitarian good of the whole.

3) The equity issue posed by Kasperson, Schlesinger, et al

4) The justification for the takeover of NWPO by academicians needed to determine "the best arrangement of benefits" for Nevadans.

NWPO's analysis of Yucca Mountain never calculates the possible beneficial affect of the repository on Nevada and the nation. Instead, on-site storage of nuclear waste is proposed as a solution because it distributes the pain in a Rawlsian sense and satisfies Rawl's two principles of justice. Unfortunately, this ignores the productive good that can come from the centralization of nuclear waste in a dedicated structure. Rawlsian ethics degenerates into a solely distributive theory (it can divide equitably what already exists, even the risks of nuclear waste), but it cannot create new goods and services and it cannot evaluate the possible benefits of Yucca Mountain, only its potential harm. Rawls has no mechanism for deciding what an equitable future should look like (since no one has invented that future yet), only for dividing up risk in the present. In sum, it is a recipe for paralysis, in this case the paralysis of the entire nuclear industry.

We can now clearly see the philosophical evolution preceeding Yucca Mountain: