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Liberal Redistributive Justice [Mar. 29th, 2008|01:31 pm]
Real Philosophy


Sorry, I don't have the prompt for this one, but this essay was written for my Phil371 course "Contemporary Social and Political Thought." The course primarily deals with political theories from the early 1970's (this date was use to coincide with the publication of Rawls A Theory of Jusice, as most contemporary theories have to go through Rawls) through today. The course deals with Liberalism, Libertarianism, Communitarianism, and Multiculturalism with readings from Will Kymlicka's text Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction. A fairly decent text, though as with any philosopher there are a few short-comings in both his reading and interpretation of the arguments.

Contrary to Rawls’ position, within a Liberal society, inequalities need not exist to benefit the least well off, but can exist only insofar as they were attained justly. For the Liberal this means that so long as no one is disadvantaged (or conversely, advantaged) by factors that are irrelevant to their ability to do the job (such as race, sex, gender, social standing, et cetera), then the inequality is deserved. But the question still remains as to why such a societal structure seems fair.

The search for this answer often begins with an intuition: We want our successes to be judged by our ability, and not factors which are irrelevant to our ability (such as race, sex, gender, et cetera). If society operated in such a way, it would be ensured that our successes and failures are the result of our own ability or inability, and that we were not discriminated against. Ultimately, this ensures that our success is the result of our ability rather than something which was the result of luck. In a society with Equality of Opportunity, people deserve their successes and failures because they were the result of choice rather than circumstances.
While Kymlicka is correct that when we succeed we do not want such a success diminished by the idea that we achieved it because of factors that are irrelevant to our ability, this same inclination does not seem to apply to our failures, as he suggests it does. The idea that people want their fate to be in their own hands is only true insofar as it applies to their successes, as there seems to be a tendency for people to want the extent of their failures reduced which, more often than not, leads to a reliance on blaming their failure on exactly those qualities which they do not want to be judged by.

However, it seems that for this to be truly damaging to the intuitive argument for Equality of Opportunity, then we must ascribe the cause of this dissonance. It remains a possibility that this tendency arises as the result of people being unsure as to whether or not they are being judged based on their ability, rather than irrelevant characteristics. This is largely because we know that it does happen (though, the extent of which is not known), both formally through law (in the past and present, given that in modern society the focus is different), and informally through social institutions. If it is the case that we were being judged purely based on our ability, we might be more capable of accepting our failures (or, such an excuse wouldn’t be believable, at least).

While the intuitive argument is a useful method to point us in the direction of what may be important, it is not enough to develop the principles of such a society, and so we find ourselves in the Original Position. Within the Original Position we are placed behind a veil of ignorance wherein one does not know the distribution of their natural endowments, or any other characteristics which may influence their place in society. In such a position, Rawls argues, people would choose principles for societies which were fair to all, regardless of social position as they would not know where they would be upon coming out of the veil of ignorance.
By and large Liberals agree with Rawls that our successes and failures ought to be the result of our choices, they disagree as to the extent that natural inequalities must be accounted for. Liberals will argue that someone being born with an IQ of 140 or someone being born tall is equally as arbitrary as whether someone is born female or black and as such these inequalities ought to be accounted for. While Rawls does account for natural inequalities through the Difference Principle by arguing that, “the basic structure can be arranged so that these contingencies work for the good of the least fortunate.” That is, in order to ensure that no one unfairly gains, or loses, due to their natural inequalities, they will either give or receive compensation.

The problem for liberals, then, does not come from a disagreement that natural inequalities ought to be accounted for, but the fact that Rawls only accounts for social primary goods (such as wealth, rights, and opportunity) in determining who is better or worse off and in this sense, ignores the natural inequalities. Given this, insofar as two people possess the same amount of social primary goods, they are considered equal even though one may be more naturally endowed. This presents a problem for Liberals in terms of Rawls theory, especially if the additional social primary goods (wealth, for instance) are not enough to compensate for their disadvantage.
Dworkin attempts to account for this while still remaining choice-sensitive/ endowment-insensitive through the use of auctions and insurance schemes. In Dworkin’s account we find ourselves with all of societies goods up for auction and each person given an equal amount of money (in the example it was 100 clam shells) to bid for those goods. We are all equally capable of bidding for resources that will help us to lead our good life and so, if the auction works out, no one will prefer anyone else’s goods to their own (thereby satisfying what is known as the envy test). For Dworkin this allows for differences between individuals based on their ambition, but still requires them to pay for their own choices and not have to subsidize anyone else’s choices.

However, this assumes that everyone begins with equal endowments, and as such it won’t satisfy the envy test even given equal resources, so in order to address this we now find ourselves with the insurance scheme. In the original auction, someone who is physically handicapped with an inability to walk will be less able to pay for their good life because they have to spend an initial investment on compensating for this disadvantage. So, we find ourselves yet again behind the veil of ignorance with the auction looming ahead of us; we know that not everyone will be equally endowed and that there is the possibility one of us could end up being disadvantaged. Following from this, Dworkin argues that we would rationally choose to put a certain percentage of our 100 clamshells into a general fund to account for any natural inequalities that may exist.

What happens, then, should someone buy into an insurance premium and have no need of it? People who must continue to buy into insurance but receive no compensation will inevitably have to work harder in order to attain the level income needed to reach their desired levels of leisure and consumption. Rather than merely being a constraint on how they choose to live their life, it would instead be the only determining factor and they will perhaps have to choose a job they might not have chosen otherwise.

The most interesting solution comes from John Roemer in the form of what he calls the “egalitarian planner.” He agrees that determining the extent to which disadvantages result from choices or circumstances is impossible at the individual level we still may be able to negate the effects circumstances may play at a societal level. In order to implement this, society must first determine a set of characteristics that are seen as being purely circumstance (i.e. race, sex, age, et cetera) and then divide society into groups or types that bundle these circumstances, where one type would be white, 60 year old males who are able bodied and their parents attended college and another would be black, 60 year old females who are able bodied and their parents only attended primary school. Within the first group there will be variation in the level of income that they receive, but because they share all of the same circumstances, we can assume that this is the result of their choice rather than circumstance and as such we ought not to redistribute within that group. When determining how much needs to be redistributed, then, we compare the 90th percentile of type A to the 90th percentile of type B and if someone from the second type were to receive a lesser income (presuming, of course, that they made all of the same choices regarding work and leisure) we can determine that this was the result of circumstance.

Perhaps the biggest problem with a real world application of such redistributive schemes would be determining exactly which characteristics are related to choice or circumstance. For instance, it is likely that for most things there is a biological (circumstance-related) basis for it in the first place; one’s ambition, for example, will be heavily reliant on not only the aforementioned biological basis, but will also result from how the person was socialized as well. It begs the question as to what, if anything can truly be considered a choice, since, in our development, we are heavily influenced by a variety of factors which we have no control over.

This criticism of liberal theory, however, only serves to lead us to their ultimate response, which can essentially be surmised as, “If you can’t have the best, have the second best.” But what you seem to get from their response is another matter entirely. If we are merely attempting to get the second best then it also sounds if we are trying for a system in which there is the greatest good for the greatest number of people which is, simply put, utilitarianism, without the necessary caveat one places on more in depth interpretations of utilitarianism wherein one must takes into account a greater societal harm that may occur as the result of your actions, though they benefit a large number of people. If this is the case, then one must ask themselves if there is even a need for a greater liberal theory if, in the end, it simply boils down to being a theory which already exists.

[User Picture]From: ihatepeoplealot
2008-05-16 06:39 am (UTC)
I took a month long small-group discussion based course on distributive justice and by the end of that course, although I was already a libertarian, I no longer believed in the idea of desert.
I could no longer accept that anyone deserves anything because concept of deserving comes with such metaphysical weight that instances of people not getting what they deserve are akin to their rights being violated.

But I thought to myself, if you "deserve" X after completing criterion a, b, and c, but everyone else on the planet is dead, does god then owe your fulfillment of that which you deserve?
Problems hidden in discussions of distributive justice range from a complete lack of mentioning subjective valuation, to appropriately explaining from whence many of the rights and deserts assumed in distributive justice schemes come.

I remember we were talking about King Kong requiring a sacrifice to not destroy the city and I was the only person in the group to say that the value of a human life is immeasurable, and you can't compare one life to many because [infinity + infinity !> infinity].
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