Sense and Nonsense on Distributive Justice

It must be nice being a nationally syndicated conservative political columnist. As far as I can tell, the main requirement is being willing to spin the same basic arguments and stories over and over again, month after month, year after year, regardless of shifting circumstances.

Now of course I’m being a little unfair–there are important exceptions. I’m usually interested in what William F. Buckley has to say (anyone who was a skiing buddy of John Kenneth Galbraith couldn’t be all bad), and David Brooks of The New York Times makes a good faith effort to engage facts and social science. And while we’ve been a little hard on the RTD’s Barton Hinkle in this space, in reading his stuff one detects someone who is thinking for himself.

It’s difficult to be so generous towards long-time syndicated columnist Walter Williams, especially judging from his latest offering. (The article ran opposite a column by Paul Krugman concerning the causes of America’s stagnant wages.)

Williams addresses the topic of distributive justice. His basic claim, drawing on the metaphor of a poker game, is that no matter how unequal the distribution of income we witness in the economy, no one has any basis for complaint so long as the rules of the game generating that distribution have been fair.

That is a coherent argument, echoing that of Robert Nozick’s classic libertarian argument in the 1974 book Anarchy, State and Utopia. Unfortunately, Williams conflates that process-based conception of distributive justice with an entirely different distributive maxim, the notion that we ought to be paid according to how much individuals “serve their fellow man.”

But as Nozick recognized, rewards in the market often don’t correspond to objective merit or objective contributions to social welfare. For Williams, if someone is willing to pay me $1,000,000 and my brother only $50,000, it must be the case that what I am producing is in fact twenty times more valuable to society than what my brother is producing.

But what if my brother is a public schoolteacher teaching history to 120 pupils a year, whereas I am a history tutor who gives private history lessons to one child, the son of a wealthy industrialist? (Let’s assume the industrialist has identified me as the best possible tutor for his child, and that he insists on the best for his kid rather than on a lower-paid alternative. But I say that the work of helping the spoiled brat kid of a rich scion is so distasteful to me that I won’t do it for anything less than $1 million.) The extremely rich man is willing to pay me $1 million for my services. But that doesn’t imply I’m any more productive than my brother, much less that I’ve made a contribution to my fellow man larger than that of my brother.

Obviously, this example is extreme, but it makes an important point: what the market values and what objectively contributes the most to the common good are two different things. To take another of Williams’s examples, I suppose the invention of Google has helped my life and that of others in some small way, but Google doesn’t contribute nearly as much to my welfare as the sanitation workers who pick up my garbage and recycling each week.

The price of one’s labor depends not on one’s contribution to the public good, or even upon one’s productivity, but on the price at which the buyer of labor can find a suitable replacement for me. Sanitation workers are more easily replaced than skilled celebrity divorce lawyers, hence they get paid less–even though most people would probably admit the sanitation workers collectively make a greater contribution to society than the celebrity divorce lawyers.

Indeed, sometime the market rewards those whose activites damage social welfare–for instance, to take an example close to home, cigarette manufacturers.

Considerations such as these led Nozick to recognize that if you are going to make the fairness of the underlying process the standard of distributive justice, you shouldn’t rely on any other moral maxim, or expect that the results produced by your favored process will overlap with notions of desert, social contribution, utility maximization, and so on. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t, but that doesn’t matter as long as the process is fair.

This of course leads us to consider the Nozickean view proper, as opposed to the fallacious Williams version of it. There are multiple problems with Nozick’s full-blown argument that I won’t belabor here, and even greater problems with the assumption that the actual American economy corresponds to a fair game in which rules are fairly enforced for all. But I’ll content myself with pointing out two fundamental problems with the poker game metaphor.

First, as deployed by Williams, the metaphor totally ignores the question of what happens when poker players bring unequal initial resources to the table. A poker player with $10 million in chips has all kinds of advantages over a player with just $20 in chips, and other things being equal is going to last a lot longer in the game, barring spectactular stupidity or spectacularly bad luck. The well-endowed player can be more patient and wait for a sure winning hand. Or he can risk some of his resources on a bluff that frightens the less well-endowed players into folding on hands they might have won, so as not to risk losing everything.

The truth is, in the American economy people enter the “game” with vastly unequal resources; those initial inequalities then translate into unequal opporunities to develop one’s personal capacities, as well as into unequal bargaining power. The result? Ever larger and more entrenched inequalities, that in turn carry over to unequal starting points for the next generation. (And if you doubt that Americans have unequal life opportunities at the start of life, ask yourself how many parents of children in Henrico or Chesterfield County schools would be happy to have their children randomly assigned to a public school in the city of Richmond.)

The second point to make about the poker game metaphor is that, obviously, the possible outcomes the game generates vary greatly according to the ground rules of the game one agrees upon in advance.

If life really were a poker game, we might all agree to a winner-take-all policy in which one person gets everything and everyone else gets the shaft. But since these are people’s lives we are talking about, it seems more likely that we would want a set of rules that made sure that the winnings of the game were broadly shared, and that no one completely got the shaft (especially since we ourselves might turn out to be the one who goes broke). There are multiple ways one could go about doing that–devising “insurance policies” against bankruptcies, putting a “tax” on winning hands above a certain size, placing absolute limits on the size of bets, making sure everyone starts the game with an equal or almost equal stash of chips, and so on.

This observation is not at all original; it is derived from the landmark work of 20th century American political philosophy, John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (1971). The fundamental claim of that book is that we should structure the rules of the game in a way that preserves liberty, upholds the levels of social equality required to maintain a democratic state in which everyone’s citizenship and civic voice is valued equally, and improves the lot of the least well off.

One can quibble (as many have) with Rawls’s ideas on the best way to do all that. But examining the depressing statistics about rising income and wealth inequality, stagnant and perhaps declining social mobility, and wages which have remained largely stalled for years even as productivity has increased reminds us that Rawls was absolutely right about one big thing:

We ought to be able to design a better poker game.

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Published in: on October 12, 2006 at 1:33 am  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Very good post. You make some excellent points.


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