My remarks about Rawls have elicited a good many lengthy comments, and I should like to spend some time responding.
First of all, when Rawls introduced his theory in the 1958 journal article he claimed to be sketching a theorem -- not a vision of the good society, not a systematization of the attitudes of himself and others like him, not an historical or sociological or economic or even moral commentary on the world in which we live, but a theorem. Specifically, he claimed to be presenting a theorem in Bargaining Theory [although he did not use that phrase.] I have chosen to take him at his word. Why? Because the theorem he presented is a powerful and interesting theorem which, if valid [i.e., following logically from its premises] would be in my judgment important. What is more, I find Rawls an uninteresting commentator on the passing scene. I look for my moral and political inspiration elsewhere. However, it is of course open to all to read any book in any way they choose, and there is no disputing about tastes, as the Latin tag has it.
Now, the thing about theorems is that they are either valid or invalid, and if valid, are so for all time. It would be absurd to object to the Pythagorean theorem on the grounds that Pythagoras lived a long time ago and times have changed. [Please, no silly comments about non-Euclidean geometries. The Pythagorean theorem is a theorem in Euclidean Geometry. The fact that later mathematicians were unaware of the possibility of non-Euclidean spaces for several millennia is irrelevant.]
Rawls offers two versions of his theorem. I demonstrated the invalidity of the first version in a journal article and the invalidity of the mature version of the theorem [the version that includes the so-called veil of ignorance and the revised Difference Principle] in my book, Understanding Rawls, published almost forty years ago. I do not wish to rehash those refutations. They are correct.
Second, with regard to Mayans and the Veil of Ignorance -- Chris is quite right. The Veil of Ignorance is an imaginative literary device designed to illustrate Rawls' premise that the individuals in the bargaining game abstract from or ignore every fact about themselves as particular individuals -- whether they are young or old, rich or poor, male or female, extra smart or only smart enough to engage in rationally self-interested calculations, even which country they live in or which historical era they live in. Another way to think about the same set of constraints is to imagine a judge who is charged with handing down decisions disinterestedly [which means something different from uninterestedly, by the way.]
One of the things Rawls does not actually realize is that by imposing the Veil of Ignorance he has changed the problem from one in Bargaining Theory to one in the theory of Rational Choice. Since under the Veil of Ignorance individuals know nothing about themselves that differentiates them from others in the Game, no coherent sense can be given to the idea that they are bargaining with one another. Any argument that is a good argument for one of them will be a good argument for all of them, and therefore all that is involved is a matter of individual rational choice. Rawls seems genuinely not to have understood this. Thus, a Mayan and a twenty -first century American will, behind the Veil of Ignorance, reason in exactly the same fashion.
Third, now let me come to the most interesting point raised in the comments, one with which I [but not Rawls] would agree completely. Indeed, the point of my post was to drive this idea home dramatically by imagining little stories [always my preferred way of making formal logical points.] To put it simply, if we take the Difference Principle seriously, and actually bring to bear what we know about people, the result would be the elimination of almost all the inequalities of income and wealth that characterize modern capitalist society. Look, does anyone really think that if we started reducing the salaries and bonuses of corporate executives, they would pretty soon say, "That's it! I quit! If I can't get at least $100,000 a year, I am going to take a job on the loading dock for $40,000 for the rest of my life [a bit above the median wage for full-time workers]"? Let's not exaggerate the painfulness of having to write memoranda and attend meetings. One day on the loading dock and that executive would be begging for his old job even if it paid only as much as he was getting loading washer-dryers onto trucks.
Is this true of everyone? Of course not. There are north of three hundred million people in this country. Every proposition that is not logically impossible is true of somebody! But what would the typical corporate executive do?
Rawls' Difference Principle is, if taken seriously [which is, I emphasize, not the way he takes it], the most radical proposal for revolutionary change ever advanced. It implies not advanced Scandinavian style Welfare State liberalism, but something like a communitarian Kibbutz writ large.
By the way, none of that has anything at all to do with the validity or invalidity of the theorem he advances. The theorem is invalid -- that is a matter of logic and mathematics.