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Thoughts on Justice as Fairness and the Redistribution of Wealth

January 3, 2010

Justice, 50 Fleet Street, London
There are many arguments for and against the redistribution of wealth via taxation and other mechanisms and volumes have been written regarding the subject. One argument that I commonly hear used though that I want to challenge is one that invokes John Rawls’ Theory of Justice. Rawls is famous for his ‘veil of ignorance’ approach to tackling moral dilemmas. I have found this approach to solving moral dilemmas to be extremely useful as it provides a mechanism for forming a basis for what constitutes an individual’s rights. However, one conclusion that is drawn by Rawls and many others that use this approach is that a redistribution of wealth is a basic right. Since I like the theory but disagree with one of the conclusions here is  an attempt to reconcile the two.

(If you are already well versed in Rawlsianism/Justice as Fairness than skip this paragraph)

As an abbreviated introduction to Justice as Fairness, the basic idea is that in determining what rights an individual is entitled to we should look to what is ‘fair’. Fairness can mean a lot of things so Rawls came up with the concept of a veil of ignorance to provide a thought experiment for determining what was fair. The veil of ignorance thought experiment works by assuming you are in such a state that you are totally unaware of what your life will hold for you, what station, race, culture, creed, etc you will be born into, your physical and mental attributes and what environment you will have to survive in (lush and resource rich or barren and destitute). In this state, the things that you would agree to would constitute ‘fairness’ and those agreements would constitute rights. So as an example, under the veil of ignorance a rational and reasonable person would probably agree that they should not physically harm or assault another person, since you would not know in advance whether you would be stronger than a would be aggressor or weaker and unable to defend yourself. Therefore you would conclude that everyone has a right not to be assaulted by another. I selected this example because it is a case where the moral principle is supported by most other moral theories and common sense morality.

So now let’s turn our attention to the argument used for claiming that a redistribution of wealth is also a basic right. This will also be an abbreviated form of the argument but in essence it can be described as; A rational person under the veil of ignorance would agree that some sort of safety net should be in place in the case that one is born into a vastly inequal social and economic condition. This in part leads to a principle Rawls called the difference principle which suggested that inequalities in society should work to the benefit of the least advantaged. From this the argument goes to claim that when vast economic inequality exists, for those at the top of the economic spectrum some percentage of redistribution has very little disadvantage, while at the lower end of the economic spectrum the redistribution is a tremendous economic advantage ($20,000 to a billionaire is chump change but it’s life or death to someone at the poverty line). Therefore, those at the lower end of the economic spectrum have a right (read: entitlement) to a redistribution from the top.

Ok, so where is the flaw? Well, let’s begin with a bite the bullet appoach. Let’s say nothing is wrong with the argument. Can we then conclude that a redistribution of wealth is a basic right? Well, maybe but it would tell us nothing about what that redistribution should look like, what constitutes vast inequalities in the social and economic spectrum, etc.  (although it does seem that it would support a progressive tax system). This is an unsatisfying conclusion since it does not provide anymore insight than what is contained in the thought experiment itself, so let’s look at another potential flaw. Part of the difference principle is the consideration that those with comparable talents and motivation face roughly similar life chances. As an example; two ‘A’ students should have an equal chance of gaining entrance to the same school irregardless of whether one of the students father knows someone on the application committee, makes large alumni contributions, is a legacy, etc. It also means that neither student should gain preference because they are of a particular ethnicity, religion or cultural demographic. What I want to key in on here is the concept of motivation. The ‘right’ to a redistribution under the theory of justice argument hinges on the idea that all parties are equally motivated (in their work ethic for instance) and that the inequality that arises is not for lack of trying but for lack of resources. This would seem to rule out the idea of any sort of universal right due to its contingent nature.

Neither of these are really slam dunks for making the case that justice as fairness does not require a basic right for a redistribution of wealth. Let’s look at one more case that might be more compelling though. Let’s consider the case in which there are insufficient resources to accommodate everyone no matter how they are redistributed. Using the veil of ignorance this is one case that would need to be contemplated in addition to all others. Let’s assume that there are only enough resources to support 100 people but the population grows to 120. In this instance the consequences are either 20 will starve (bad case) or there is a redistribution from the 100 to the 120 and all 120 starve, just more slowly (worst case). As a rational person I would rather take my chances that I am not in the 20 that starve, rather than require a redistribution and guarantee that everyone starves. I would go even further to say that if I was one of the 20 I certainly wouldn’t want the guilt of being responsible for all 120 starving. You might say that, well in the US there is plenty of wealth to go around so this is not a practical example. However if you are to use the veil of ignorance to support that a redistribution of wealth is a basic right it should contemplate all potential scenarios or else its value for determining fairness is purely arbitrary.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. June 27, 2013 7:06 AM

    Spot on with this write-up, I really believe this amazing site needs a lot
    more attention. I’ll probably be back again to read more, thanks for the advice!

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