My thanks to D.R.
Khashaba and Hubertus Freme-rey for their responses (Issue 54, 23rd March
2003) to my comments on Jonathan Wolff's paper on redis-tributionism and to
Geoffrey Klempner for the opportunity to rebut.
(1) Three quick
reminders. First, I was invited to comment. Second, the opportunity to
discuss redis-tributionism tipped the balance in favor of my accep-ting the
invitation, despite my indifference to how one might offer redistributed
goods to prospective beneficiaries. Finally, Professor Wolff may have
defended those presuppositions somewhere, but commenting on that possible
defense was not what I was invited to do.
(2) Moral Ownership. I
should have, but did not, specify moral ownership when I stated that a
re-source's owner has the exclusive right to deploy it. Nevertheless, I
presume that Professor Wolff be-lieves, as I do, that "S owns x for morally
justifiable reasons" entails "Only S has the right to use x, con-sume x,
destroy x, lend x, or give x away." If S owns x, then some other person T
may not do those things with x without S's permission. If, for example, S
re-ceived x (money, food, clothes, etc.) via redis-tribution then, according
to Professor Wolff (I pre-sume), S has acquired and owns x morally and
there-fore has the exclusive right to do with x as S sees fit (short of
interfering with T's use of what T morally owns). Should T later stick a
gun in S's ribs and coerce S to hand x over to T then Professor Wolff
would, I presume, regard S as a victim of T's aggression.
I see no substantial
moral difference between the ways that S and T acquire x in the above
examples, that is, between redistribution and robbery. Forcible
expropriation is justifiable only to restore property to its moral owners,
not to deprive them of it. While Professor Wolff might regard S as the
victim of one kind of theft, I regard S as the beneficiary of another, in
which case S is no more entitled to x than is T.
Redistribution is not
charitable gift-giving. My arguments against the former have no bearing on
the latter. The issue is the permissibility of coercion.
"Redistribution" is a political, not an economic, notion: nothing is left
over to be "redistributed" after goods and services have been produced and
exchanged. Their owners should be free to give them to those whomever they
wish. It is impossible to justify any scheme that rests on coercion by
appealing to the various loves that bind, or ought to bind, human beings
to each other.
The concepts of physical
possession and moral entitlement do not imply each other. S owns x 'de
facto' if S merely possesses x, that is, controls the use or disposal of x
as S sees fit, regardless of how S acquired x. S owns x 'de jure' if S
acquired title to x in accordance with moral rules, regardless of whether
S also possesses x. For example, I own my wristwatch 'de jure' if I have
acquired title to it in accordance with moral rules of acquisition, even
if I do not yet, or no longer, own it 'de facto'. I morally own my
wristwatch even if I do not yet possess it (I paid for it, but it hasn't
yet been delivered to me) or no longer do so (I was robbed of it). In
forcibly taking possession of my wristwatch, a robber does not acquire
title to it. Redistribution schemes blur the distinction between title and
possession and are therefore incoherent, for they both affirm and deny
that forcible expropriation is a morally justifiable means of acquiring
(3) Mr. Khashaba's
Indignant Question. As I have argued elsewhere,1 moral rules of
acquisition have as their frame of reference an idea of the human good,
more concretely, a good life. That is the source of my answer to Mr.
Khashaba's question, "How can my ownership of anything be moral when my
neighbour is suffering for want of some of that same thing?": it can be
moral if he acquired ownership of it peacefully. Rules formulating
peaceful means of acquisition are moral because adherence to them enables
anyone and everyone to improve his or her life (i.e., to increase the
probability that he or she will attain a good life) at no one else's
expense, that is, without imposing costs on any one else.
If you acquired a meal
peacefully, then even if I am hungry, you did not acquire it at my
expense. You did not make me hungry. Neither my mere claim nor the
disparity between our situations is sufficient to establish any ethical
obligation you may have to me. For a third party to force you to share
your food with me leaves any such obligation where it was: unfulfilled.
Being coerced to act is incompatible with fulfilling an obligation.
Adherence to peaceful
rules of acquisition (original possession of previously unowned things and
any increase in their value; acquisition through voluntary exchange or
gift) does not only benefit those who create more and therefore have more.
It also improves the lot of those who create and have less, but want more.
That is, everyone in a free society is better off—as each of them
defines "better off"—as a result of noninterference with voluntary
exchange, the ethical standard of "good" being lives that achieve and
enjoy a wide range of values harmoniously and regularly.
In contrast, non-peaceful
methods of acquisition—wars of conquest, piracy, robbery, taxation, theft,
extortion, third-party interference with the exchanges of others,
redistribution, etc.—are immoral: such methods diminish the overall
prospects of achieving a good-life achievement. They leave people less
well-off—as each of them defines that comparative state—than they would
have been absent the forceful or violent interference.
Those who suffer for want
of material things stand a better chance of alleviating their suffering if
they live in a society of free markets, than they would in a
market-hampered or marketless society. The upwardly sloping historical
curve of human happiness in comparatively free societies, however, bores
redistributionists to tears. Even if the less well-off are still
better-off than the absolute monarchs of old, they take the fact that some
are still better off than others as evidence of injustice. As the late
Australian philosopher David Stove noted:
"the passion for equality
has a curious feature which de Tocqueville pointed out: that the more it
is fed, the less it is satisfied. As more and more inequalities are
removed, the more galling are any remaining ones felt to be. A tiny
inequality, at a time when privilege has almost entirely vanished, excites
more indignation than far greater inequalities had done at any earlier
Wherever bare subsistence
is a daily struggle, redistribution is not on the agenda: things, to be
redistributed, must first be produced. Redistributionists take production
for granted. They dissociate the material engines of production from the
flesh-and-blood human beings whose dreams make them possible.
(4) Mr. Fremerey's
Ambivalent Liberalism. Mr. Fremerey faults me for my "fundamental
misunderstanding" of the difference between "contractual" and "social"
Mr. Fremerey seems to be
merely stipulating that by "social" he excludes what we understand
by "contractual." I find the stipulation arbitrary and unnatural. My
contractual relations are a subset of my social relations, not alien to
them. Yes, we are social beings, bound by ties of mutual solidarity and
love, and those bonds potentially qualify every contractual relationship.
True, the concept of entitlement does not encompass all of our
relationships. It is equally true, however, that none of them can
substitute for entitlement. Any attempt to supersede or nullify an
entitlement on the grounds of love, solidarity, social aid, or decency is
an attempt to rationalize aggression. Love implores and persuades. It
never coerces. And free people do not relate to other free people as
suckling babes to their mothers.
"While in mutual
assurance my premium is given by my own free decision," Mr. Fremerey
writes, "in social aid it is not, and this is not changed by the fact that
social aid is paid from taxes, since the state is obliged to minimal and
justified taxation in the common interest." The alleged obligation to tax
that he gratuitously asserts, I gratuitously deny.
Mr. Fremerey claims to
"clearly understand," even "subscribe" to, liberalism while at the same
time accusing it of having "severe faults through misunderstanding the
nature of human society." (I suppose having a severely faulty sociology
doesn't fatally disqualify a social theory.)
"The idea of liberalism
has been, that those connections [of solidarity], instead of being defined
by tradition, should be defined by compact and mutual interest of its
members. But this left as unsolved the problem of the fate of all those
people who are NOT members of such a compact and who need the state to
defend their objective interests in face of organized powers."
The solution to the
problem of not being a "member of a compact" is to become one, that is, to
participate in free markets to the best of one's ability, to provide goods
and services that other people want. Others whom one meets along the way
may offer assistance or provide it if asked, but it is, morally speaking,
out of the question to force them to do so. One will face challenges of
varying difficulty, but the State can address them only by creating many
more, and more severe, difficulties. They may be unintended, unforeseen,
and invisible as in the case of, for example, market-driven private
enterprises that remain unrealized dreams because State-sponsored
undertakings have commandeered the resources that would otherwise have
gone to the former. The consequences of these forced divertings are no
less painful for being unintended. Socialists, redistributionists, and
other egalitarians rarely allow such disagreeable thoughts immobilize
There are many ways to
come to the aid of second parties without forcibly expropriating and
redistributing the justly owned property of third parties. Violating
someone's rights is never a morally acceptable way to help someone else.
The one thing the State can do to improve people's lives is to peacefully
1 If one
here and scrolls
down to my answer on property rights, which links to other answers, I will
leave it to the reader to judge whether my commitment to a society of free
markets, as a means to the end of making human lives good, is "religious,"
as Mr. Khashaba suggested. And he misunderstands me if he thinks I want to
live under a State that "is not a family." I'd rather not live under any
State. When I said a State is not a family or a club, I was highlighting
the State's coercive nature. If there is a justification for a group of
people, calling itself "the State," to have a perpetual monopoly on the
means of coercion, I have not encountered it. A society of free traders
does not require a State, in my view, not even to provide police and
defense services, but that's another argument. I was only reminding those
who defend the State that since it is not like those more congenial
institutions, the bar for justifying it is quite high.
2 David Stove,
On Enlightenment, ed. Andrew Irvine. Transaction Books, 2003, p. 6
(c) Anthony Flood 2003
* This essay first
Number 56, 20 April 2003. It is a
"Wolff and Flood on Distributive Justice: Two
Reponses," Philosophy Pathways, Number 54, 23 March 2003.