BY ANISH KOKA, MD
The hottest medical school in the country right now is the New York University School of Medicine thanks to the gift of a generous benefactor that promises to make medical school free for all current and future medical students. The news was met with elation from the medical community of physicians that groans frequently about student debt loads routinely north of $200,000 upon matriculation. Not surprisingly, the technocrat class of public health experts and economists did not share in the jubilation. The smarter-than-the-rest-of-us empiricists are, after all, trained to think in terms of social justice and net benefits to society. The needs of medical students are far down the list of priorities when forming this social justice utopia.
Contemporary arguments for social justice in some form or the other trace their roots to the philosopher John Rawls and his 1971 magnum opus – “A Theory of Justice”. In words that would infuse liberal thought for a generation, Rawls laid out a blueprint for a just society by proposing a thought experiment called “the original position”. This was a hypothetical scenario where a group of people are asked to form the rules of a society which they will then occupy. The catch is that the people making the decision do so behind a ‘veil of ignorance’ not knowing the disadvantages conferred by any number of attributes (age, sex, gender, intelligence, beauty, etc. ) they may be reincarnated with. Rawls posited that under conditions in which there was a possibility of being born as a disadvantaged member of society, social and economic inequalities would be arranged to be of greatest benefit to the least advantaged members of society.
At first glance, it would seem that the objections to tuition-free medical school rest on a social justice framework that does not seem to comport with gifts to the soon-to-be-wealthy. After all, the $200,000 investment for medical school pales in comparison to the lifetime earnings of the average physician who is assured at least a six-figure income in seeming perpetuity. But it is not entirely clear that one has to even combat Rawlsian ideals to rebut the social justice do-gooders with strong opinions on how other people should spend their money. A Rawlsian framework never intended that everyone in society would be able to achieve the same outcome regardless of starting position. Rawls actually went out of his way to argue that inequalities were justified in society as long as the operating rules served to raise the position of those worst off in society. A rising tide should lift all boats – the rich may become richer, as long as the poor become richer as well.