Citing Robert Nozick, Matt Yglesias argues that it’s incoherent to oppose redistribution for the purpose of equalizing people’s outcomes, while at the same time touting tax-supported efforts to ensure “equality of opportunity.” If the objection to redistribution is that people have strong claims over their own assets, then it should make no difference whether they are taken to equalize the welfare of adults or the life prospects of children. It’s debatable whether this necessarily follows from the best reading of Nozick’s view, but in any event, I think it’s mistaken.
On any non-anarchist view, people may be legitimately expropriated for some purposes, even if those purposes are limited to funding the “night watchman” functions of a minimal libertarian state, compensating people for the imposition of negative externalities, and so on. We can agree with Nozick that “No one has a right to something whose realization requires certain uses of things and activities that other people have right and entitlements over,” in the sense that it will not do to talk in abstract terms about people having a “right to” whatever seems good for people to have, as though these goods were just manna from heaven. We need to speak clearly about what we think other people are obligated to provide those we’re asserting have a right, and which of those obligations may be coercively enforced.
Many people who say we have a “right to healthcare,” for instance, mean that they think we are all obligated to contribute—and if necessary may be compelled to contribute—to some public scheme for the universal provision of healthcare. Most of those people do not mean—I hope—that retired doctors are under a coercively-enforceable obligation to help provide that care, such that they may be conscripted into service, or that healthy people may be compelled to serve as unwilling kidney donors. Rights do not float free from enforceable duties, and we ought to take care in asserting a purported “right” that it does not conflict with other rights, including just claims over assets.
But the same holds in the opposite direction. I may have a just claim against anyone who would seek to compel me to cough up $20… unless they are the agent of someone to whom I promised that $20 in return for some service, and are demanding it for the purpose of making good on my pledge. Ditto for an agent of someone whose property I damaged in a way that will cost $20 to repair. Whether I have a right against someone seeking to expropriate me will often depend upon what they want the money for.
Suppose, counterfactually, that we did live in a society where some intergenerational scheme of transfers and provision of certain goods, such as public education, did substantially achieve equality of opportunity, within realistic limits. Assuming the persistence of something recognizably like current family structure, there would be no getting around the vagaries of upbringing, or of our basic biological endowments, but without gross disparities in things like educational opportunity, childhood nutrition, and so on. Despite this basic equality, there would nevertheless be significant disparities in outcomes—and in particular in wealth—owing to all sorts of remaining differences between people, including their talents, determination or worth ethic, preference for income over leisure, and a healthy dollop of simple dumb luck.
Eventually, the taxman cometh to each adult member of this society, and suggests that they are obligated to contribute some percentage of their income for each of two distinct purposes. One is the preservation of the system of equal opportunity in which each was raised. The second is a system of transfers to equalize the differential outcomes of the adults who have come out of that system. The better off among these adults object that they’ve fairly earned their wealth, and should not be coercively deprived of it. The taxman, it seems to me, has a stronger response in the former case than the latter.
In the former case, the taxman can say: What you have now, you have in no small part because of this intergenerational system of goods provision. Even if your parents would have been able to give you a decent start without public assistance, you have earned your income by engaging in productive cooperation with people who may not have been as fortunate. You cannot reasonably complain about being asked to pay back into this system at least the amount by which your position is better than what it would have been in the absence of that system. Moreover, your claim that you have fairly earned your holdings may depend, in part, on your having started out under conditions of rough equality with others. They cannot object that it is unfair of you to command so much wealth when they had as much opportunity to earn it as you did, but did not.
Nozick, to be sure, would not have been much moved by these arguments at the time he wrote Anarchy, State, and Utopia, but they are, at any rate, facially somewhat plausible answers to the property owner’s objection, provided the underlying empirical claim turns out to be true. In many ways, this answer would parallel the answer the taxman might give to justify taxation in order to support provision of police and courts: You could not have earned your wealth, or nearly as much of it, absent the stable institutional background that enables market cooperation. You cannot now turn around and deny your support, by means of the same resources you have earned on the market, to the perpetuation of the system that made it possible.
Nozick explicitly rejects the tacit principle of reciprocity invoked here: We do not (he observes) normally think people can be unilaterally obligated to pay for supposed benefits they’ve been provided with unasked. You cannot weed someone’s garden while they sleep, then demand a fee for the service. But in this case, the taxman can point out that it would not have been possible to ask each child whether they wanted to agree to take part in this sort of system, leaving us with little alternative but to fall back on some kind of principle of reciprocity, or to forego a system of benefits we genuinely think makes everyone—including those asked to do more to fund it—better off in terms of the very wealth they’re asked to pay back. Each may be better off economically with a system of opportunity-plus-taxation than each would be without either the system or the taxes that fund it, and for obvious reasons, it may simply not have been possible to let each person decide in advance whether they want to accept this package deal. But if you say you would have rejected it, all you’re being asked to return is the same funds you would have implicitly rejected at the same time.
Perhaps the taxpayer relents in response to these arguments. Can something similar be said about taxation for equalization of economic outcomes? This, too, might be a partly empirical question. It’s conceivable that at a given time, it’s less costly to provide some minimum standard of living to the worst off than to pay for more cops and prisons when the worst off become desperate. But against a background of rough equality of opportunity, it will generally be much less plausible to argue on grounds of reciprocity that each taxpayer—each actual taxpayer, including those who pay in without drawing on the system—is made better off on net by the existence of a system of compulsory contributions and transfers.
Here, the taxpayer may say: “I have recognized several exceptions to my general claim to have a right to my holdings. When you pointed out that my business creates various environmental externalities, I recognized my obligation to surrender certain funds to support programs that mitigate those harms or compensate those adversely affected. When you pointed out that my holdings depend on a system of courts and law, and upon a system of education that prepares my fellow citizens (in childhood) for social cooperation as adults, I acknowledged that I couldn’t coherently invoke my right to my holdings against a demand to help support the very systems that are its preconditions. But these exceptions do not plausibly apply to a system of redistributive transfers to other adults, at least above whatever level is necessary to ensure basic social stability. These transfers are not part of an intergenerational system from which I myself benefit; this system of transfers merely imposes a cost on me for the benefit of others. It might be morally better for me to voluntarily contribute to help my fellow citizens, but absent some such special justification, there’s no exception to my general right to my holdings that would permit compulsory expropriation for this purpose. Moreover, as an adult, I am perfectly capable of joining in a system of mutual social insurance with others if I do think it’s likely to be in my interest to do so.”
There are a number of familiar answers to this sort of argument, and there’s little purpose to my rehearsing “Theories of Social Justice 101″ here by elaborating on them. But there’s at least a facially plausible argument for treating public provision of “opportunity” programs as justifying an exception to people’s generally valid claims on their fairly-earned holdings, in a way that is not available for straightforward redistributive programs. This may, of course, be wrong. It may be wrong because a parallel argument is available for those programs, or it may be wrong because the type of justification I have sketched very roughly above will not actually work even in the case of opportunity-providing programs. Even if my proposed distinction is right insofar as it goes, there may be other arguments supporting compulsory funding for redistributive outcome-equalizing programs that render this distinction moot. It may be that I am not obligated to cough up the funds for such programs on the basis of this sort of justification, but some other better one that applies equally to “opportunity” and “outcome” programs. But it is not, it seems to me, an obviously wrong distinction to draw, or a clear sign of theoretical incoherence to treat these cases differently.