Virtual Voices

Distributive justice?

Economy

A social utilitarian would take your money and abridge your liberties if he has reasons to believe it would serve the "common good." Under the right conditions, this intellectual descendant of Jeremy Bentham would even consider terminating your life. Of course, unless he is a psychopath, he would have to come up with a pseudo-scientific tale to numb his conscience first. He may come up with something like: You are "Untermensch," subhuman refuse polluting our race. Or: You are nothing more than an unwanted fetus that is too inconvenient and expensive to keep, and you may grow up to become a criminal. Life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness---you are entitled to those for as long as they do not interfere with the overriding goal of maximizing the algebraic sum of economic and social benefits for the nation or the human race.

An egalitarian nurtured in the tradition of political philosopher John Rawls rejects the principle "the greatest good for the greatest number." Nevertheless, he has this in common with the social utilitarian---he does not care for your inalienable rights. He would pay lip service to some basic liberties---thought, speech, assembly, voting, and holding personal property. Unfortunately, when voluntary market interactions produce income and wealth inequalities that are "not to the benefit of all," he cries "injustice" and looks for ways to reform the institutions and rearrange the outcomes. A "well-ordered society" for Rawls is one where every individual choice should be treated as unjust by the state unless it brings immediate and measurable benefits to "the least advantaged" among us.

In his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Robert Nozick demonstrates how both strands of philosophy---utilitarianism and egalitarianism---make the same mistake in presuming the existence of a mechanism of distribution based on "just" principles or criteria. It is an old trap set by classical economist David Ricardo, as he attempted to study distribution separately from the process of production. There is hardly a more futile activity for, as Nozick points out: "In a free society, diverse persons control different resources, and new holdings arise out of the voluntary exchanges and actions of persons. There is no more a distributing or distribution of shares than there is a distributing of mates in a society in which persons choose whom they shall marry."

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Alex Tokarev
Alex Tokarev

Alex is the chair of the Department of Business at Morthland College in West Frankfort, Ill., and teaches at Northwood University in Midland, Mich. The native of communist Bulgaria fanatically supports the Bulgarian soccer team, Levski.

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