Sunday, December 13, 2009

On Distributive Justice

Tibor R. Machan

For a long time political philosophers and such were interested in identifying the nature of justice. It started with Socrates and lasted to when John Stuart Mill did his work, although by that time there had been talk of this thing called distributive justice. By now most political theorists dwell on little else.

Yet I have never quite understood why the idea has become so prominent since it is clearly question-begging. Distribution is something done by people who have things to distribute, who are legitimate, rightful owners of what may be wanted from them about town. Money, mainly. So in our day government takes money from people--the resources they have made, earned, found, won or whatever--and hands it to some other people (after taking a good cut for itself). How the distribution goes may be judged as arbitrary, fair, unfair, corrupt, or, just. But all this couldn't even begin if it were determined that the initial taking of the resources is wrong. And as I have managed to figure these matters, taxing people is wrong. That means that distributing what is taken in taxes is also wrong. Accordingly distributive justice could not be justice at all. It is at most something touched by a bit of generosity, as when bank robbers divvy up their loot among some needy folks, in what is taken to be a Robin Hoodish way (but Robin just took money back that had been taken in taxes instead of taxed people).

Why is taxation wrong? It is depriving people of what belongs to them without their consent. Sure, some people in a society may consent, by voting for it, to the taking of other people's resources but that couldn't possibly make the taking anything better than confiscation, an unjust taking because it involves coercion and lacks the consent of the owners. And this is what had been realized, more or less, when individual rights were finally clearly enough understood and affirmed by some political philosophers. Few came right out and condemned taxation because they held the mistaken belief that the administration of a just legal system required it, but it does not. They had similar ideas about slavery in various places until finally they gave that up. They should have given up taxation along with its conceptual sibling, serfdom. Both of these had their home under feudalism and other types of monarchy since in such systems the government--king, czar, pharaoh, dictator, ruler, politburo or whatnot--owns everything and thus when people live and work withing the realm, they are made to pay taxes as their rent and fees. Government in such systems permits people to live and work and charges them for this by making them serve in the military, subjecting them to forced labor, etc., etc. The benefits government provides are privileges, grants from the sovereign to the subjects. Such systems do not recognize individual rights!

Distributive justice is a weird hybrid that combines feudal or monarchical features with those of a fully free society, one in which it is individuals citizens who are sovereign, not the government. But the two, wealth-distribution by government and justice plainly enough don't mix, despite how sophisticated folks claim they do. Justice requires acknowledging the sovereignty or self-rule of individuals, with what little government is warranted existing with the full consent of the governed. This government has no rightful authority to do any confiscation or conscription at all. Its sole function is that of a protector of individual rights or, as the American Founders put the matter, to "secure [the]... rights" everyone has by virtue of his or her human nature. (In America much of this was discussed but sadly not fully applied since a bunch of perverse ideas, held by powerful recalcitrant people, needed to be accommodated for the sake of establishing a sustainable country.)

When one hears of distributive justice--or another version of this oxymoron, social justice--it is best to conjure up the idea of a square circle or worse, a free slave. Governments that have resources to distribute came by it unjustly, by seizing it from people who are the just holders of those resources.

As to how legal services might be paid for, well, that is important but the answer cannot be "by confiscating the resources of those for whom they are being administered."

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