Philosophy against Misosophy



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2. Redistributionism, Continued*

Anthony Flood

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 property.

(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 stage."2

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" relations.

"The 'social' claim cannot be reduced to a formal claim. But humans ARE social beings. You cannot deny the baby the mother's breast by the argument that the baby is not 'entitled' to get nourished. This shows the failure of the concept of entitlement to understand what society means. Any decent human society depends on mutual loyalty and solidarity and love and honesty and understanding. But we are never 'entitled' to anything of this, because the mere concept of 'entitlement' is not applicable here. Entitlement is a juridical concept derived from mutual consent of contracting parties. This is completely different from 'social relations'."

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 them.

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 disband.


1 If one goes 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 appeared in Philosophy Pathways, Number 56, 20 April 2003.  It is a rejoinder to "Wolff and Flood on Distributive Justice: Two Reponses," Philosophy Pathways, Number 54, 23 March 2003.



Contracts, Coercion, and Condo Boards