Aug 14, 2017
Libertarian Thinking on Redistribution
Though they don’t think there’s anything wrong with unequal wealth distribution per se, libertarians can and do criticize the unjust processes that can lead to inequality.
Considerable confusion surrounds the subject of wealth redistribution; in general, libertarians oppose it as a violation of the individual’s right to her property, arguing that it is wrong to take from some to give to others. Progressives, social democrats and others on the political left tend to see redistribution as not only morally right but necessary in a world of stark inequalities of wealth and income. These two groups thus seem to have fundamentally different values. The first group sees the second as sanctioning theft, even a kind of slavery, allowing some to live on the labor of others. The second group sees the first as lacking compassion, insufficiently sensitive to the plight of the poor, hoarding wealth and neglecting the common good.
One might suppose progressives and other left-wing proponents of coercive government redistribution believe that such redistribution is a necessary remedial measure, a way to correct concrete injustices of the past. And, on its face, this seems a perfectly tenable position. After all, few political theorists at any point on the political spectrum (which itself is a hopelessly flawed tool for expressing philosophical positions) would seriously argue that the past and the distributions of wealth it has given us are, for the most part, morally defensible.
For many, then, the relevant issue is, quoting philosopher Jason Brennan’s restatement of Robert Nozick’s standard, “whether people came to acquire what they have through just or unjust means.” Yet it is far from clear that this is the question driving most champions of the redistributive state. This is an area in which progressives, social democrats, and state socialists in general are not necessarily clear or explicit about what it actually is that they are arguing, often because they do not themselves know. For example, it could be that the justness of the means through which one attained wealth simply does not matter; that is, even if the means were perfectly consistent with a given set of normative constraints, some on the left may believe that the results must nevertheless conform to “some preordained pattern of holdings.” Undoubtedly many progressives and socialists do indeed fall into this category. Once one accepts such a distributive justice theory (and there are many from which to choose), undertaking to determine the causes of the unjust pattern to be corrected through redistribution becomes, at the very least, less important. While a consideration of means will still be necessary—for we would, in any case, need to determine how to effectuate our preferred pattern of wealth distribution—the ends move into the position of primacy. The end, the preferred pattern, justifies the means. Even just means, then, if they begin to disrupt the delicately balanced pattern, must not be allowed within the scope of permissible individual action.
The political mainstream’s stereotypical libertarian is quick to excuse existing inequalities of wealth and income, sure that they are the legitimate results of the free market and thus unassailable from a moral or philosophical perspective. In fact, however, libertarians have tended to be quite scrupulous in pointing out that the holdings of history’s rich and powerful were largely stolen, taken and held by the sword, as Lysander Spooner argued in his scathing reply to “Dunraven.”Spooner did not mince words in his round denunciations of the landlords of the British Isles, whose titles, he said, were never more than robbers’ titles, deserving of no protection. Spooner argued that because the defects in these titles had never been cured,
Every successive holder not only indorses all the robberies of all his predecessors, but he commits a new one himself by withholding the lands, either from the original and true owners, or from those who, but for those robberies, would have been their legitimate heirs and assigns.
Spooner is therefore led to advocate a kind of redistribution whereby the ruling classes and their accomplices (among them, “manufacturers, merchants, bankers, ship-owners, money-lenders”), whom he calls “enemies of the human race,” are expropriated, their stolen wealth returned. But to whom is this stolen wealth to be returned? Spooner is not particularly troubled by this question, by “[t]he fact that the direct descendants of the original holders of these lands cannot now be individually traced.” After all, what we do know is that the current owners have no legitimate claim and are liable for their crimes. Revolution, retribution, restitution, and compensation are, to Spooner, warranted. Now, it may be that, as Spooner’s interlocutor observes, such radical remedies would effectively upend the “whole social structure.” Spooner was unconcerned, firm in his belief that a social structure such as that of the British Empire, based on plunder and enslavement, deserves no protection.
The question of reparations for slavery provides an analogy here, if an imperfect one. Slavery is a past wrong that seems to call for restitution (which in turn requires wealth redistribution) here and now, notwithstanding the practical difficulties that implementation would entail. Some modern libertarians, perhaps most notably Murray Rothbard, have—employing reasoning like Spooner’s above—contended that “the abolition of slavery remained [and remains] unfinished” insofar as the land that the slaves worked “remained in the hands of their former masters.” Arguably, then, some form of wealth redistribution is not only compatible with a thoroughgoing libertarian theory but necessary to it.
In A Theory of Justice, John Rawls argues “that the principle of utility is incompatible with the conception of social cooperation among equals for mutual advantage.” This is, at least in theory, a testable proposition, a hypothesis about the relationship between theory and practice—and one with which most libertarians are likely to disagree. (Libertarians generally regard the trading that occurs in a genuinely free market as both utility-maximizing and as a form of mutually beneficial cooperation.) Rawls suggests that, placed in the original position, a rational man wouldn’t accept a social structure that, though it maximizes utility, could potentially mean “an enduring loss for himself.” Still, Rawls submits what is in its essence a utilitarian argument, that if an unequal distribution of a given social value (for instance, liberty or opportunity) were “reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage,” it may be consistent with the requirements of justice. Yet even if we generally accept Rawls’s argument about how kinds of difference (and degrees of difference) become justified, we might nevertheless draw the line in a different place, disagreeing with Rawls about what will in fact end up being to everyone’s advantage. Indeed, he cites David Hume as a thinker who, perhaps like many of today’s economically-minded libertarians, seems to see utility as “identical with some form of the common good.” Ultimately, questions such as how to implement an abstract principle like Rawls’s difference principle or how to maximize utility (or wealth, or some other value, etc.) turn on how institutions actually function, that is, in the real world, not utopia, inhabited and administered by real people, not idealized angel-citizens, selflessly devoted to justice.
In any case, whatever one’s reasons for favoring government wealth redistribution, other questions immediately arise: first, why should we think that the state is the best mechanism through which we might achieve a just distribution of wealth? Even the most cursory review of history betrays a consistent pattern in which the state’s role in violent conquest and attendant plunder is central. Thus born of war and subjugation, the state’s interest in redistributing wealth, as a matter of history at least, almost always meant stealing it from the peasantry (or other equivalents) and redistributing it among some ruling class, both political and economic in nature. The empirical record of the state, of this phenomenon of some small group presuming to govern others, is a record not of wise leaders convening to decide what is just, but of “stationary bandits” (to borrow a term from economist Mancur Olson) living as parasites on the body politic.
When progressives, socialists, and others on the left advance the claim that the present-day distribution of wealth is attributable to free markets, they offer the most historically illiterate and morally uncompelling case for their redistribution policies. For wealth redistribution to have legitimacy, it must be as redress for concrete injustices, determinable with some certainty. To assert that history’s rich and powerful were simply innocent victors on a fair and level playing field is to abandon the moral high ground altogether, to give the ruling classes of the past far more credit than they deserve. The clearer thinking on the left has long recognized that we too often have, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “socialism for the rich, rugged individualism for the poor.” Yet the far-reaching implications of this insight seem to be lost on the left.
It may be that inaugurating some version of a libertarian free market would suffice to accomplish those of the left’s redistribution goals that are worthwhile. But, then, why not chart a straighter course (straighter, that is, than adding yet another layer of government intervention in the form of redistribution), revoking the manifold state-granted privileges that are the source of the unjust distribution to be remedied? For as the great American essayist Albert Jay Nock wrote of the United States, “No modern society ever more lavishly endowed its beneficiaries with privilege.” Lacking both principle and a nuanced understanding of the problem, progressives instead opt for the more circuitous route of attempting to rectify economic inequalities with new layers of haphazard, catch-as-catch-can redistribution. Today’s libertarians follow Nock in calling for an end to regressive regulation and other interventions on behalf of special interests. The issue of wealth redistribution demonstrates once again that, when a proper account is made of the many nuances at play, seemingly irreconcilable positions may in fact be two sides of the same coin.