Fiction: The Difference Principle

Jessica pointed at a pile of rags beside a dumpster.

“This is the guy?” I asked.  I looked up and down the filthy alley we were standing in.  “This is a person?”

“It is,” she said tentatively, and then she checked the little brown Moleskine she carried everywhere.  “It is,” she repeated more confidently.  “A lot of them aren’t even this clean, so you’d better get used to it.”

“Sir?”  I crouched down closer to what I assumed was his head, trying to ignore the stench of cigarette smoke and sour beer and body odor.  “Sir?”  I asked again.

“Go ‘way.”  The voice sounded rusty, as if it weren’t used very often, but it was indeed coming from where I’d guessed his head was.  “Leave me ‘lone.”

“Keith Runson?” I asked.  I’d memorized the name on the drive over.  The pile shifted.

“Who’s askin’?”

“My name is Harry…”  Jessica kicked me, and I immediately remembered that we weren’t supposed to tell them our names.  Shit.  But this guy didn’t seem like he’d remember it, so I kept going. “We’re from Original Position.”

He poked his head out of the blankets. His hair and face clearly hadn’t been washed in months, he had the decrepit teeth common to those who prioritized drug abuse over hygiene, and his eyes were pretty much the saddest I’d ever seen.  The computer clearly knew its business.

“The char’ty?” he asked.

I puzzled over my answer for too long, and Jessica stepped in.  “Original Position is not a charity.  It’s a fundamental part of the social contract.”

“I never no signed no contract,” he objected.

“No,” Jessica explained, in a tone indicating that she’d delivered this exact explanation countless times before, “but you would have…”

“I never would have signed no contract,” he insisted.

“Maybe not in your lifetime,” she told him, “but before you were born you certainly would have. This is well understood.”

“Before I was born I ain’t would have signed no contract!”

“Before you even knew who you were,” Jessica patiently explained.  “Back when you didn’t know if you’d be the President or if you’d be … well … you.”

“I am me,” he growled.

“You’re not just you,” Jessica told him.  “According to our computers you’re the worst-off person in the United States.”

“Well, fuck you!”  He spat at her, but she didn’t flinch.  She’d warned me that they often got angry.  It was an occupational hazard.

“Don’t spit,” she patiently chided him.  “We’re here to help.  Before you were born, back behind the Veil of Ignorance, you would have wanted to live in a society that focused on the well-being of the worst-off-person.”

“I’m not that ignorant,” he objected.  “And you don’t know what I would have wanted.”

She ignored his objection.  “Right now you are that worst-off person.  And so we’re here to make you better off.  What would you like?  Within reason it’s yours.  Food?  Shelter?  Toilets?  A job?”

“Booze,” he wheezed.  “I want booze.”

Nine times out of ten they want booze.  They’d warned us in training.  I opened the unlabeled messenger bag Original Position had given me and pulled out a bottle of cheap whiskey.  He grabbed it out of my hand, opened it, and started drinking before I could say anything.

“Congratulations, Mister Runson,” Jessica told him.  “You’re no longer the worst-off person.”  I don’t think he even heard her.

“What did you think of your first assignment?” she asked me as we walked back to the car.

I thought for a while before I asked, “Was it really a good idea to give him whiskey?”  I didn’t feel like we’d been particularly philanthropic.

“A good idea?  Probably not.  Possibly he’ll end up on our list again someday.  But for the meantime he’s no longer the worst-off person, which means that our attention is needed elsewhere.”

“I didn’t realize it would be so depressing,” I told her.

“Rawls didn’t call his book A Theory of Why Justice is Fun.  Just wait until you get a quadriplegic.”

I tried not to think about that.

“Let’s see who’s next.”  She opened up the Moleskine.  “Ooh, child abuse!”