Distributive justice is a normative philosophical principle concerned with the fair allocation of resources (rights, goods, wealth, and other assets) to members of a society. There are two terms of contentions and confusion in this definition. First, the term distribution ordinarily means that some powerful entity has control over these resources and is charged with allocating them. Secondly, that entity is charged with allocating these things in a just and fair manner; that is, there is an algorithm for deciding how they are to be doled out that conforms to the human intuition of justice. In a free society there is no central entity charged with allocating resources, although governments may assume this role to some extent. If it does, distributive justice is actually redistributive justice because the resources to be allocated have first to be appropriated from citizens who produce the resources, as the government does not produce its own.
The other issue is fairness. Everyone agrees that fairness is morally desirable and a social good, but there are disagreements as to when its promise is fulfilled because the word is suffused with divergent meanings. Fairness appeals to people’s moral sentiments because it is a process by which they expect to “make things right” when we perceive that things are not. In essence, fairness means free from bias or injustice and to be evenhanded in disbursing resources rather than showing favoritism or discrimination. But does this mean that resources should be distributed equally (egalitarian), proportionate to a person’s need (needs-based), or proportionate to a person’s contribution to the overall wealth of society (meritocratic)? Thus, there are at least three visions of “fairness” or “justice” embedded in the concept of distributive justice.
For strict egalitarians, equality is the greatest good, and they demand true social, political, legal, and economic equality. This position rests on the claim that because people are morally equal they all have a claim to the same level of goods and services. Egalitarians see no relevant differences among people that justify unequal treatment or unequal shares in society’s bounty. The assumptions of equal human value—equality before the law and political equality—are natural equalities that people do not have to earn, or even deserve; they are simply what is due to all human beings. The equality of resources, however, is another matter. French philosopher Voltaire’s position was that equality was an entirely natural thing when limited to legal and political rights, but an unnatural fantasy when extended to material things. As a practical matter, there is no way that a modern society could implement such equality without massive coercion of its members at the cost of liberty. Even if by some magic it could, inequality would soon re-emerge due to different patterns of spending, saving, and investing among people.
A form of egalitarianism was presented in John Rawls’s influential A Theory of Justice (1971). Rawls’s theory is in the tradition of social contract theories, whereby in some hypothetical ancient time people found it prudent to enter into a social contract in which they would surrender much of their autonomy to powerful leaders in exchange for peace and justice. Rawls imagines an “original position” in which humans were under no prior obligations or constraints, and were free, rational, equal, self-centered, and mutually disinterested in one another. These conditions were necessary to Rawls’s model because these humans were charged with developing a social system under a “veil of ignorance” concealing the talents and characteristics they would bring to it and their social position in it. Under such conditions of rational ignorance, Rawls avers, all individuals would accept the principle of equality as a prima facie obligation.
Rawls’s vision of distributive justice separated justice from desert, but he was not a radical egalitarian because he believed that inequality is acceptable if it is to the advantage of the poorest individuals in society. This is Rawls’s famous “difference principle.” Rawls claimed that every rational person in the original position would accept this principle because they were expected to consider worst-case scenarios in which they lifted their “veils of ignorance” to discover that they lacked the skills, personal characteristics (e.g., intelligence, conscientiousness), and the social position to succeed in a free market. Accepting the difference principle is minimizing one’s own risk, and thus all will be concerned
with ensuring the best possible circumstances for the worst-off members of society because they may be among them.
Translated to the real world, this principle explicitly denies desert principles on moral grounds because some people enjoy the traits hidden behind the veil of ignorance in the original position and others do not. Such things represent the luck of a genetic and social lottery for Rawls, and no one “deserves” the genes or family they inherit, and therefore no one deserves the advantages and disadvantages these things grant. Rawls would be happy to see a situation in which, say, all persons belonging to group A and B made $1,000 per week. He would accept the inequality of all persons in group A making $1,200 (a $200 increase) if all persons in B then made $1,100 ($100 increase), but not one in which all As made $1,200 and all Bs made $900. He permits social and economic inequalities because he acknowledges that greater rewards naturally attach to occupations that require extensive preparation, but he also insists that everyone should have an equal opportunity to compete for these occupations. The only way that this equality can be reasonably assured is for the government to provide (distribute) free education for all beyond high school. Although he was an egalitarian, he was realistic in the sense that he admitted that no power on earth can guarantee the equality of economic outcome that radical egalitarians demand.
Contrary to the strict egalitarian position that there are no relevant differences that justify differences in the distribution of social burdens and benefits, need-based theorists claim that there are relevant differences in the form of the needs and abilities of people, and to ignore them would be unjust. Distribution according to need was made immortal by Karl Marx’s famous declaratory banner: “From each according to his ability; to each according to his needs.” In Marx’s view, the burdens of distributive justice were to be placed on the talented producers and its benefits were to be enjoyed by the needy. Marx recognized that people had different abilities, but he did not approve of the idea that merit should guide the distribution of rewards. Marx argued that some people naturally produce
more value to society due to their superior physical and/or mental abilities, but that value should not be used for the purpose of assigning resources. Presaging Rawls, Marx considered it unfair to assign rewards on the basis of merit because the superior person will receive more benefits as a result of being blessed with a natural superiority he or she did nothing to earn and thus reap undeserved rewards. Rewards must be based on equal effort within the constraints of one’s natural abilities. He did not explain how a society could operationalize “equal effort,” nor did he say how it could motivate the talented to continue to produce for the benefit of others absent incentives for themselves.
The needs-based approach raises other ethical issues. For instance, is the person who is unwilling to work just as entitled to welfare benefits as the person who is unable to work solely by virtue of having identical need? Dividing resources according to need might entice more people to be unwilling to contribute to the social good. A needs-based distribution system, however, need not reach a tipping point whereby it discourages effort by overly depriving the talented, or by encouraging idleness among the less talented. Such a needs-based scheme can be endorsed by people with neither socialist nor even liberal sentiments because it need not mean anything beyond the responsibility of a decent society meeting some threshold of basic human needs. Such a position might permit even vast inequalities as long as there is a social safety net in place that prevents a society’s poorest members from suffering the deprivations of survival needs.
The third version of distributive justice is meritocratic, whereby the relevant differences determining the rewards of society are talent plus effort. Another term for this position is equity—the distribution of rewards proportionate to the value of one’s contribution. This is a libertarian or conservative position, and one also held by many liberals as long as a society based on meritocratic principles provides a safety net for those less able and talented. In this view, resources are allocated according to the aggregated free decisions of millions of individuals regarding what to buy, where to work, what talents are valuable, and so forth. For thinkers in this camp, an unequal distribution of resources is only unfair if it is the result of discriminatory acts of a central distributor, and since there is no such entity, there is no injustice in inequality. Indeed, it is thought that inequality is necessary to motivate individuals by providing incentives to individuals to work to better themselves. Any attempt to deny talented and industrious individuals the fruits of their labor on the grounds that they don’t deserve the genes and environments they inherited is both incoherent and unfair from this position. A meritocrat would argue that life is like a poker tournament in which all must play the hands dealt to them the best way they can, stop bemoaning the lousy hand dealt them, and get on with the game. Easy to say, of course, if one is holding a full house.
Egalitarians and other opponents of capitalism may object to this argument on the grounds that these aggregated decisions are made within a framework of social and legal rules specifically designed to favor talent plus effort. They may argue that it is this framework that is unfair because it guarantees inequality of outcome. (This is essentially Marx’s argument.) Meritocrats argue that the system is fair if all people are subjected to the same rules and judged by the same standards. Governments can never guarantee complete adherence to the rules and standards governing a free market, but they are easier to guarantee (without infringing on liberty) than equality of outcome. The meritocratic system evolved naturally in a process by which each individual strives to do what is most beneficial for themselves and their families.
The notion of the natural evolution of a spontaneous system of distribution (as opposed to a planned implementation of one) is captured in Adam Smith’s metaphor of the “invisible hand” for describing the self-regulating nature of a marketplace left relatively free of government interference. Smith’s notion that free markets automatically and unintentionally channel self-interest in socially desirable directions provides the moral justification for meritocratic capitalism. It appears that people around the world strongly support this moral justification and meritocratic principles, but they also support other distributive methods in certain contexts. In terms of Rawls’s egalitarian difference principle, Ho Mun Chan’s review of studies conducted in a number of countries from around the world indicates that ordinary people overwhelmingly reject it. It is consistently found in these studies that subjects uphold a strong meritocratic work ethic and show little sympathy for promoting equality of outcome, believing that such efforts would stifle people’s motivation.
Not surprisingly, people support distribution positions according to how well they accord with their situation and self-interest. Tim Reeskens and Win van Ooschot’s study of the welfare attitudes and values of more than 39,000 people from 24 European countries found that although there was a high overall level of public support for the welfare state across nations, how far people thought the state should go beyond providing for basic needs varied considerably. Predictably, the “haves” were most supportive of strong meritocratic-based distribution, and the “have-nots” were most supportive of egalitarian and needs-based distribution. Nevertheless, there was a large degree of overall support for “bounded equality,” that is, equality in some contexts but not in others. There was strong support for equality when it came to social-risk situations that are relatively unpredictable and beyond the control of individuals (such as unemployment and disability). There was very little support for the egalitarian or needs positions as it applied to benefits for the “unworthy” poor, that is, there was little support for providing for the needs of people when social risk situations are predictable and controllable by individuals. Thus, even among people living in a continent tightly interwoven with and supportive of the welfare state there exists the belief that meritocracy is the most just way to distribute the resources of society, and that people should take responsibility for their own lives.
- Chan, Ho Mun. “Rawls’ Theory of Justice: A Naturalistic Evaluation.” Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, v.30 (2005).
- Kirtzner, Israel. Discovery, Capitalism, and Distributive Justice. New York: Blackwell, 1989.
- Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971
- Reeskens, Tim and Win van Ooschot. “Equity, Equality, or Need? A Study of Popular Preferences for Welfare Redistribution Principles Across 24 European Countries.” Journal of European Public Policy, v.17 (2013).
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