I have been reading the report (pdf) of the Commission on Integration and Cohesion, which was published yesterday. Among other things, it considers the effect of immigration on integration and cohesion.
The report is rather good at laying out the perceptions of integration and cohesion from point of view of the different players in this issue; the settled indigene, the immigrant, the voluntary sector and the State. Considering the dramatis personae in this way led me to thinking about what constitutes a just society.
I took this train of thought because I began to wonder, reading through the report, whether it was at all possible to have a society which all the above players would agree to be ‘just’.
Of course, I know that unanimity is not really possible in these things. What I mean is, is there really, as far as immigration and cohesion are concerned, a framework of rules that can be described, objectively, as ‘just’, regardless of the ‘player’ involved. So can we have a society that is ‘just’ in the eyes of the immigrant, the indigenous Briton, and even the voluntary sector? I exclude the State from consideration in this question, simply on the basis that I assume it, for these purposes, to be ‘outside’ society, in such a way as not to be affected by whether or not the society is a just one.
This train of thought led me to Rawls’s door. John Rawls was a political philosopher who did much thinking on the idea of justice. In particular, he thought a lot about what principles of justice should obtain in a society. Rawls wrote that this could be considered under a setting he called ‘the original position’. Basically, the rules of justice were determined by parties behind a ’veil of ignorance’. Put very simply, the question Rawls postulated was this: ‘what sort of society would you regard as a just one, if you did not know what role you had, or what you would be, in that society?’
So for the purposes of this post, let us try this very simple thought experiment: let us imagine the following people sitting blindfold around a table: an Eastern European immigrant, an Englishwoman with roots in this country going back to the 12th century, a pensioner of limited means, a single parent, and a rich man.
None of these people know what their identities in the society would be, because they are behind the ‘veil of ignorance’. So, for example, someone at the table would have no idea whether he would be the immigrant, the rich man, the pensioner, or the single mother. The task then is this: considering that that they do not know which they would be, what laws would they then create to ensure a just society?
If, for example, someone at the table proposed a law whereby all immigrants were given free housing ahead of single parents and pensioners, and that this was to be paid for by very high taxes, it could backfire on him if he ended up being the rich man, the single parent, or the pensioner. He could only benefit from this law if he were the immigrant. However, the fact that he does not know which he would be in the new society, would force him to think carefully before he proposed such a law.
What the exercise seems to suggest is that there is a point in the middle where all the participants can agree; a consensus ad idem. It suggests that there must be a place where they would all agree that the rich man would not be taxed too much; that the pensioner, immigrant and single parent would be treated fairly according to some agreed criteria; and that whatever accommodation is made for them, it would not be such as to anger the Englishwoman whose family have given their all to this country, and who has never asked anything of the State, but the space to enjoy her country as she remembered it as a child.
So will the Commission’s report find that meeting place? I don’t know yet. I don’t even know that such a meeting place exists. I am still reading the report, and will let you know my views later.