There has been a lot of talk this year, and especially during the holiday season, about the inequities in the distribution of wealth and income. But most of what has been written is quite simple-minded, if the writers mean to convey something more than their own personal preferences for a different distribution.
I have no objection to passive expressions of preference. But I do have objection when people attempt to bolster their case for intervention by the state under the banner of distributive justice, morality, religion or whatever is supposed to evoke some objectivity.
I also have no objection to those who want to give efficacy to their views (mistaken or not) by giving away their own money – much like Jesus urged the rich man to do and then to follow him.
It is obvious that I cannot engage in a full-length treatment of this issue here. But I can list some of the questions and issues that serious people ought to consider.
- There seems to be very little concern, in the popular press, for the causes of unequal distribution. This includes, especially, the causes of the increasing unequal distribution over the past few decades. (However, recessions seem to be good for reducing income at the top.) Reformers should always consider causes before advising cures.
- There is a confounding of the results of a process that produces a distribution with the process itself. If person A steals money from person B, I object to the process (theft) first and foremost, and not to the resultant distribution of wealth. I really don’t care if it results in a more equal or less equal distribution.
- If there is something wrong with the rules-of-the-game, that is, the process that generates wealth and income distribution, let us attend to that. For example, if people are getting rich because of the warfare state or because the institutions they work for are bailed out by taxpayer money, let us address those issues.
- What exactly constitutes a more just distribution? The economist Paul Samuelson (and other amateur “moral philosophers”) used to equate, in his textbook, equity with greater income equality. (He famously, but ignorantly, said that the Soviet Union “chose” greater equity at the expense of efficiently – but nevertheless they would surpass us in wealth soon, anyway.)
- Justice does not simply imply equality. Sometimes it implies equality and sometimes inequality (as when the criminal gets his punishment, but the rest of us do not).
- Is it important that the positive entitlement to resources must be bought with the effort of others who might believe they have better uses for their money?
- Why should the hierarchy of values that emerges out a political system — based on favors, special interests, power-plays, (rationally) ignorant voters, self-interested politicians, and people much less moral than you and me – dominate over my and your moral judgments?
- Do the putative moral claims of the “poor” stop at the water’ edge? Given that the poor of the US are rich by world standards, what kind of objective morality of distributive justice allows that “our” poor get preference over, say, North Korea’s poor? Do we have a tribal morality?
- To what extent are the commentators (law professors and economists especially included) trying to publicly signal their “goodness” by using their technical skills to come up with schemes that pander to unthought-out popular prejudices. After all, how much respect from the general public can academics get by coming up with some theorem on the quasi-transitivity of preferences, or what not?
- Last, but not least, do the redistributioners have any idea how the so-called welfare state works in practice? Do they know how the state uses one hand to make the poor poorer (unseen) and uses the other hand to help them out (seen)? Do they see the coming bankruptcy of the welfare state?