I’m late to the ball here, but there have been an enormous amount of silly things written about redistribution in the past week or two. First, we have the claim that Barack Obama’s agenda is “socialist,” which is just sloppy. Words mean things, and “socialism” is about centralized economic planning and state control of the means of production—you know, like banks and natural resources—not just redistribution. Otherwise, you end up with a definition that makes Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek socialists—though admittedly, Ludwig von Mises is supposed to have thrown the term at them once upon a time.
But I’ve also been a little astonished to see progressives acting as though opposition to “redistribution” is just some bizarre incoherent notion, because duh, almost all government programs redistribute money in some way. At first, I thought this was just a cute bit of sophistry, on par with claiming that all government programs are “faith based initiatives,” because Congress must have “faith” that the program will accomplish its goals. After all, the past half century of political philosophy has been occupied with debates over whether and to what extent it’s appropriate for the state to redistribute income, and all the parties to that debate at least seemed to acknowledge that they had a real disagreement about some intelligible question. But the argument appears to be offered in all sincerity. So maybe it’s helpful to consider a few different types of distribution.
At the very least, most government programs that require spending tax revenue will involve what I’m going to call incidental redistribution. Take the least controversial government functions, like national defense or courts. These are textbook cases of public goods requiring public provision—they’re supposed to benefit everyone, but in such a way that people can’t be individually excluded from the benefit provided. Hardcore libertarians will probably disagree, but a similar case can be made for public subsidy of general education in a democracy. Now, given that people vary widely in their ability to contribute tax revenue for such goods, even a flat tax means that people are going to kick in different amounts for these goods. So certainly there’s a sense in which one might say provision of public goods involves “redistribution”: People who can’t afford to pay much, or anything at all, toward them at a given time nevertheless benefit from the funding provided by the better-off.
It’s not especially helpful to talk about this as “redistribution” in the context of the historical debate over the idea. The justification for these programs is that they are a net benefit to everyone (or almost everyone) in society, including those who foot a disproportionate chunk of the bill for them. In terms of the Doctrine of Double Effect, most familiar from just war theory, we can say that redistribution is an inevitable consequence of the provision of public goods, but not the reason for which programs providing public goods are enacted. Redistribution of a sort occurs, but it is not the point.
Now there are two other kinds of redistribution, and here I think it may be helpful to reference an excellent paper by Joseph Raz on distributional equality, about which I hope to have more to say in a future post. First, we have what I’m going to call altruistic redistribution. What I’m talking about here is transfer programs aimed at helping the badly off, where the justification for the program is specifically the benefit to the worse-off, and not centrally any benefit to the people footing the bill. Obviously, both justifications may be in play with respect to a particular type of transfer. You may believe that all citizens in a democracy, including the very wealthy, benefit on net from public subsidy of education. But you may also believe that, quite apart from this rationale, we have a moral duty to ensure that the children of the poor have access to some threshold level of education, and that this would be the case, even if doing so were not a net benefit to the folks paying the bills.
Finally, we have what I’m going to call egalitarian redistribution, which is the view that resources should be transfered from the rich to the poor and middle class because economic equality is a good in itself. The idea here is not simply that we have a duty to provide folks who can’t afford it with some basic minimum quality of life—say, by ensuring that they have things like health care or education or food—but that fairness independently requires a more equal distribution of resources, above and beyond whatever duty we might have to promote the welfare of the badly-off in absolute terms.
Now, I think Raz argues pretty persuasively that the argument for distributional equality as an intrinsic good is very weak. And indeed, I’ve argued on this very blog (though I’m not finding the post just now — update: found it, link added) that most people who argue against income inequality don’t really do so on the basis of the intrinsic-value egalitarian argument, even if some of them think they do. Still, this sort of argument does get made, so it makes sense to include it, because it’s arguably the most pure rationale for redistribution—an argument for redistribution as such, independent of any particular benefit to which we might think the poor are entitled.
Within mainstream political discourse, just about everyone accepts the need for the first type of (incidental) redistribution. Most people are also on board with some level of altruistic redistribution, though there’s obviously a pretty broad gradient here, especially as egalitarian redistributive arguments get thrown into the mix. You can probably make a “now we’re just haggling price” move here against people who support only minimal altruistic redistribution, but there are probable plenty of points within the “altrustic” rubric where you can reasonably draw a line and say that redistribution beyond this threshold goes too far, even if political campaigns are poor fora to dive into the weeds and establish the precise location of that line.
So I’m just not terribly impressed with arguments that move from incidental redistribution, or even low-end altruistic redistribution, and proceed to the conclusion that it’s somehow nutty or incoherent to deploy rhetoric that’s skeptical of a “redistributive” philosophy of the role of government.
Interestingly, though, if you take seriously Obama’s stated position that everyone benefits when you “spread the wealth around,” he’s actually making a sort of hybrid argument that mostly falls in the “incidental redistribution” camp. On the one hand, he’s clearly making a direct argument for redistribution that isn’t a mere side-effect of providing some other public good. But he’s arguing that redistribution in itself is a kind of public good, because the economy is more robust and productive when economic holdings are more equal. It’s a valid question whether this is really his primary reason for supporting (e.g.) more progressive taxation, but it’s suggestive—and a sound response to those who want to claim there’s nothing in the American tradition that cuts against the latter two types of redistribution—that he feels compelled to frame the argument in these terms.
Update: Having found the older post where I talk about this, I see that I divided what I’m calling “altruistic redistribution” here into two sub-categories, though obviously one could probably come up with many more. I suggested that one might have a “threshold view,” on which redistribution is justified as a means of ensuring that nobody falls below some basic minimum level of resources or quality of life. On this view, government should redistribute enough so that people aren’t starving or bereft of some degree of education, but there’s a cap on the obligation to aid the badly off. Alternatively, cribbing from John Rawls, I suggested that there’s a “maximin view,” on which no such upper boundary exists: You keep taking from the haves to improve the position of the have-nots until you hit the point where any further redistribution would make everyone worse off by squelching economic growth. So that’s another clear basis on which you might distinguish between redistributive philosophies.
Obviously, this gets muddled when candidates attack the idea of “redistribution” per se. But again, a stump speech is not a philosophy seminar. It doesn’t seem such a great stretch to suppose that when McCain or Palin mock the idea that we should “spread the wealth around,” they’re talking about a maximin view that aims at making people as equal as possible, rather than a meliorist threshold view that aims only at avoiding particular very bad outcomes.