The Coconut Scenario

Imagine a deserted island.  One man then becomes shipwrecked on this island.  Alone, he decides to make the best of his situation and begins a long and arduous task of collecting all of the island’s coconuts (as well as other resources, but we’ll just focus on the coconuts for simplicity’s sake).  After a while he gets them all, stores them in his cave, and settles in for a content, albeit lonely life.

Then, another shipwreck occurs, stranding nine additional people.  For awhile they leave the first man alone, as they are content to work on their own to collect what little remains of the island’s food supply, as well as build some ramshackle huts that offer basic protection from the frequent storms that batter them all.  After some time, the nine become tired and depressed.  The first man watches from his cave.

Thus our setting is established.  The final nine, tired and hungry, barely able to survive a miserable existence, decide to approach the first.  By looking at the choices of the entire group now, we can each develop some insight into what we prefer, and what may actually be preferable, if we were to start this scenario from say, John Rawls’ original position, behind his veil of ignorance.

The libertarian position would be to conclude that the best thing is for the first man to keep his coconuts, keep his cave, and expect that the final nine should just happily “get lost.”  He worked hard for his possessions, and nobody has the right to just come and take them away.

The economically conservative stance – that which tends to align with the leaders of the Republican party as of the time of this writing – would be that the first man should in fact show some sympathy toward the nine.  They could work for him.  They could make his cave more comfortable, bring him water whenever he wants from the island’s freshwater well, while flavoring it with seasonings that grow naturally on the island’s far side, and provide him with fresh fruits, fish, vegetables, and whatever he asks.  In return, he’ll patriarchally, and in his eyes, benevolently, rule the island, deciding who gets what and when.  The coconuts are his to choose to do with as he sees fit.  The nine will be fine with his decisions, and in fact, better off for not having the stress of leadership.

The progressive stance is that the ten islanders should come together, and make arrangements which best favor the group, while acknowledging the first man’s initial hard work.  He should provide sustenance which would make it easier for the group to build sturdier huts.  He gets to keep the cave, and getting credit for the work he has done, can assume a leadership role, or at least if he is not the leader type, he can do less work commensurate to the work already done.  The group can build community huts, walking trails, and provide community health care for any of the ten to use as needed or as desired.  They take periodic votes to determine leaders and decisions concerning resources and trade with neighboring islands – now possible thanks to engineering and scientific innovation of boat building now more likely with communal resources.

The anarchic/socialist stance is the one that libertarians and conservatives mistakenly attribute to progressives.  This opinion holds that the nine should just overthrow the first, sharing his wealth in a perceived utopia, that will inevitably give way to idleness and treachery.  Few people that call themselves Democrats, Liberals, or Progressives rather than Socialists, Anarchists, or Communists, would support this decision.

The point of this analogy is to give a comparison which more closely parallels the economic reality of modern life while hopefully highlighting the bigger picture.  Yes, we can, and have, squabbled with biased perceptions about rights, and justice, and predictions based more on a childlike fancy than on historical reality, but ultimately two considerations should trump them all.  The “Rawlsian” consideration is this: not knowing the timing of our island landing, which situation would we most prefer?  And the other consideration?  While we too often forget both of these, this is the thought that should most convince us of one option’s moral preeminence:  which scenario would provide the society we would rather leave behind to our children?


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