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Types of Redistribution

November 2nd, 2008 · 21 Comments

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 nowupdate: 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.

Tags: Economics · General Philosophy · Libertarian Theory · Moral Philosophy



21 responses so far ↓

  • 1 LarryM // Nov 3, 2008 at 11:40 am

    I think that a large percentage of the eye-rolling coming from the left is caused by the perception, correct or not, that the modern GOP favors a fourth type of redistribution, basically redistributing from the middle and poor to the rich, for reasons which, to use libertarian terminology, amount to a simple response to rent seeking by the rich.

    Now, if that is true*, it would seem to at least somewhat contradict any principled opposition to the third type of redistribution.

    *I think that it is true, in some sense, though the argument in favor of that point of view is more sophisticated than usually advanced by the left, and, taken to its logical conclusions, would provide some uncomfortable implications for modern liberalism.

  • 2 Tom // Nov 3, 2008 at 12:12 pm

    While I think these are coherent ways of categorizing arguments for redistribution, I’m not sure they’re as useful for categorizing the redistributive programs themselves — as you point toward yourself when noting how public education can be classified in various ways.

    I also think I’d also object at least somewhat to the gradient of support for redistribution that you attribute to progressives (with all supporting incidental, most altruistic, and a few supporting egalitarian redistribution).

    Personally, I don’t have much of an opinion of altruistic redistribution as a means of satisfying a affirmative rights to food or healthcare. I mean, yes, I support such programs, but the larger rationale isn’t based on social justice or even charity. The underlying rationales are instead means of selling egalitarian redistributive mechanisms, which I support for purely pragmatic reasons: I think capitalism concentrates wealth and that if we don’t want people taking to the streets with iPitchforks every few generations, we need a bleed-off resistor (so to speak) to at least ensure some turnover in the plutocracy. I realize I shouldn’t assume that everyone shares my perspective, but I think there are probably a fair number of progressives who feel this way, too.

    I think that’s close to the argument Obama is making — an essentially utilitarian one. On the other hand, I may also be falling into the class of folks you mention who think they’re arguing for an egalitarian justification but whom you say are mistaken about their motivations — something I’m ready to believe! I hope you’ll link up that post if you ever do find it.

  • 3 Julian Sanchez // Nov 3, 2008 at 12:24 pm

    Yeah, I think you, like a lot of progressives, are in that odd hybrid category where you’re in favor of transfers that directly aim at achieving an egalitarian distribution, which looks like the third sort of justification, but upon closer scrutiny the rationale actually turns out to be, weirdly enough, of the “incidental” sort. And I found the post and updated above…

  • 4 Kevin B. O'Reilly // Nov 3, 2008 at 2:22 pm

    I think what has made the McCain’s “redistributionist” attack pretty laughable is that both candidates are very close gradient-wise along the redistribution spectrum. It would be akin to Obama attacking McCain as a “social Darwinist” because he wanted to renew the Bush tax cuts. Not very credible.

  • 5 Z. M. Davis // Nov 3, 2008 at 3:18 pm

    “Hardcore libertarians will probably disagree, but a similar case can be made for public subsidy of general education in a democracy.”

    You don’t have to be a hardcore libertarian to protest that education and schooling are distinct concepts.

  • 6 Jeremy Pober // Nov 3, 2008 at 4:34 pm

    I think your analysis is a good start but I also think it’s missing a few distinctions.

    First, I don’t think 1-2-3 line up on one dimension. The difference between incidental and altruistic wealth seems to be a difference of results, whereas the difference between 3 and 1/2 is a difference in motivations or intentions behind the redistribution. It’s on this second dimension that I take the meat of the debate to be located.

    Secondly, I think the point you add about Rawlsianism at the end is good, but I don’t think Rawls and Nozickians such as yourself differ in kind so much as in degree on the amount of redistribution. You’re both looking for the economy to benefit from redistribution, the question becomes how much redistribution will benefit the economy, and this question seems to me empirical in nature.

    Finally, I don’t think the distinction between intrinsic and instrumental theories of redistribution is complete since the only instrumental theory you put on the table is an economic instrumentalist theory, i.e. a theory that states redistribution is good insofar as it helps the economy.

    I espouse (and I take many progressives to agree) a more Sen-like instrumental theory of redistribution (and economics in general) wherein economic policy is set for the maximization of what Sen calls substantive freedoms.

    Overall though, I’m incredibly glad you started a discussion involving serious analysis of this effusive concept of redistribution, and I really only aim to add to your framework.

    I try to explain the GOP’s message and where it is inaccurate along the lines you discuss here.

  • 7 Steven Maloney // Nov 3, 2008 at 9:13 pm

    First of all, Jeremy, hi, how’s it going?

    Second, I’d like to echo Jeremy’s point that there’s unlikely to be any crippling difference between maximin and libertarian views when it comes to social output. Rawls has a nifty chart on this, both in “A Theory of Justice” and in “Justice as Fairness: A Restatement.” The latter one being slightly more interesting because if you put distributive justice in the context of political liberalism, I’m not sure that the Rawlsian can call the difference between Julian Sanchez and John Rawls anything but a political difference in which distribution and social output are only very slightly modified over time. Something tempered even more by the fact that a society of free and equal persons will select choices that alternate between the two positions and find homes in between them.

  • 8 Jeremy Pober // Nov 4, 2008 at 1:21 pm

    Steve–good to hear from you (on Julian’s blog of all places!) and thanks for the Rawlsian textual support–I was pretty sure he said something like that but am not nearly as familiar with his work as I ought to be.

    Thoughts, Julian?

  • 9 Julian Sanchez // Nov 4, 2008 at 1:42 pm

    Hey, sorry Jeremy, good to hear from both of you. I don’t think we disagree; I didn’t mean this as an exhaustive taxonomy. But I’m also (surprise surprise) pretty swamped right now; I’ll have a longer reply when I have time to devote some proper thought.

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