Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Please, Move Money Around -- But Don't Call It "Redistribution."

Ever since I started studying distributive justice, income inequality, and philosophy of economics, one of my biggest pet peeves has been the term "redistribution." I get why conservatives and free-marketers use this terminology, since it supports the ideas they support: that you have a full entitlement to whatever our current system says you "own." But why do liberals and progressives use it? It seems to me like it undermines their position.

Liberals regularly do use the term. In his criticisms of Mitt Romney in 2012, Krugman described Medicare as "strongly redistributive." George Soros has argued that "redistribution" is important because without it, wealth accumulates in the hands of a few.

But it seems to me that these remarks buy into the very ideology that liberals would, and should, oppose. Outside of the trivial sense in which all economic activity involves a change in who has what, to call a tax-funded program "redistributive" makes sense only within a certain kind of libertarian or fiscally conservative framework.

As this very apt article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) points out, the problem is the problem of the baseline. The whole concept of "redistribution" assumes that there is a baseline from which things have been redistributed. To say that governmental economic programs are "redistributive" establishes this baseline by appeal to what one would own in the absence of taxation and government.

But this way of establishing a baseline must say that people are fully and justly entitled to full ownership of their pre-tax income, and that from this baseline funds are "redistributed." And this is true only within a particular theory of individual ownership rights: that they are determined outside of societal structures and in the absence of government. Such a theory of property rights is usually associated with conservative and free-market thinking.

Liberals and progressives should disavow these kinds of theories of property rights for several reasons. For one thing, seeing ownership rights as the only kind of rights, or as rights that cannot be overridden or compromised, doesn't fit with liberal values.

But more importantly, it seems to me that these approaches to property rights are an uncomfortable fit for the modern world, since all contemporary economic activity is now enmeshed in complex webs of social, cultural, and economic relationships. Corporations depend on international banking systems; social networking companies depend on the content produced by armies of users. After the financial collapse of the last few years resounded throughout the entire globe, how can we trust a model that requires viewing people as economically independent actors?

Finally, who can say that their ownership of money, land, or things has an untainted history that would justify simple and full entitlement? If you get something fairly through exchange, but that thing was itself stolen, your entitlement to it is murky at best. But not only does America have an ownership history of violence and fraud -- including, most obviously, that perpetrated against Native Americans -- any nation with a history that includes wars, slavery, political coercion, corruption, and organized crime will be one in which an untainted history of ownership will be impossible. That covers the entire world.

Needless to say, there are sophisticated alternatives to the free-market theory of property rights and distributive justice. Just as one example, the 20th-century philosopher John Rawls argued that just distributions are ones we would agree to from behind a "veil of ignorance," not knowing whether we were rich or poor, educated or not, disabled or able-bodied. In Rawls's view, from this perspective we would tolerate only limited inequality.

From the point of view of these alternative theories of property, just policies do not move money from a pre-existing baseline; they establish a baseline. Taxation is not coercive taking; it's not a taking at all. The beneficiaries of government programs are not recipients of kindness or charity; they are entitled to what they receive, as a matter of justice.

As the author of the SEP article says, using concepts associated with "redistribution" "smuggles in associations of forceful takings and rights infringements, which are not obviously appropriate in the context of evaluating social programs funded through taxation, or to discussions of reforms of the global economy."

That is to say, when liberals talk of "redistribution," they're sort of undermining their own position. If you want to talk social justice, and you want to support programs to bring it about, maybe the word you want is not "redistribution," but rather just "distribution." It couldn't hurt to occasionally also use words like "fairness" and "equality" too -- just so no one forgets they exist.


Josh said...

Most US mainstream liberals, following classical liberals, do accept that property rights are a thing and that people are entitled to some degree to the fruits of their labor -- they just don't think it is an absolute right. So "redistribution" is exactly the right term for them to use. The idea that the status quo of ownership has no value at all as a baseline is a radical left idea that'a pretty far from the Overton window right now: considerably further left than Bernie Sanders, for instance.

Linda Palmer said...

There is also this: the baseline as "what one would own in the absence of taxation and government. " Lol. Just what would Donald Trump own "in the absence of taxation and government"?

In the absence of bankruptcy courts, property laws, law enforcement, vaccinations, hardworking bureaucrats that ensure nationwide postal service, electricity, clean drinking water (at least did a pretty decent job of those things prior to certain places' takeover by corrupt rightwing incompetents...) ... of course you can go on and on and on.

We do need a better way of thinking about all this.