On Redistribution

–         The moral case for not taking things from people (whether private individuals are stealing or government taxing) runs something like this: that thing belongs to that person, because he did something for the previous owner that made the owner agree to give the thing to him. 

–         The practical case for not taking things from people is that people will not do things for each other if they cannot earn and keep money for doing so.  People won’t work as hard.

–         A case for redistribution, as I understand it, is that some poor people work just as hard as some rich people.  Some unemployed people would work just as hard as rich people if they could find a job, which they are trying rather hard to find.  So money should be a moral reward for someone’s intention to do good.

–         But, in the first place, there is nothing particularly moral about hard work.  Usually we would rather be doing something other than working hard, but if work brings us benefits to outweigh its costs, we will do it.  Working hard is just accepting a trade-off, revealing a subjective preference, which may have no moral status, good or bad.

–         Moreover, very often differences in pay do reflect different degrees of willingness to work hard, or to take on other costs.  If one for some reason takes the position that money should be a reward for moral intentions, a willingness to do things for others independent of ability, one still runs into the problem that not everybody possesses that willingness equally.  Will redistribution more or less accurately reflect people’s willingness to work than lack of redistribution?

–         Permitting inequality is necessary to maintain incentives to produce, even though it will lead to different results for people with the same motivation to produce, due to differences in luck and abilities.  If people are to turn what luck and ability they have into productivity, there needs to be incentive to produce, even though that incentive rewards the luck and ability along with the desire.  This is a distinction that I think is sometimes lost.  Lefties take the fact that people with the same intentions can achieve different amounts of wealth as a knock-down argument, while righties for some reason want to argue that people are rich only because they work hard, and poor only because they do not work hard.

–         This is because people labor under the misconception that money is a reward for moral worth, and that, again, hard work is a measure of moral worth (see bullet point four).  But, the moral case for property has nothing to do with the objective moral value of the person with the property, and everything to do with the process by which he acquired it (see bullet point one).  Trades are all about subjective values; if Babe Ruth’s bat is objectively worth two Mickey Mantle rookie cards, I’m not going to bother trading Ruth’s bat for Mantle’s cards, because I won’t get ahead.  If I subjectively value one more than the other, then now we’re getting somewhere.

–         Why do people want money to be a reward for morality?  When we buy something, we understand that we aren’t placing a moral value on the person selling the thing, but only on the thing being sold.  But somehow, in the aggregate, if someone makes lots of money, that person is supposed to be entitled to social esteem.  People tend to respect hard work and ability, and money partly reflects these things.  But then egalitarians say: we’re all entitled to equal social status, therefore, we’re entitled to equal wealth, or as little inequality as is compatible with sufficient incentives to produce.  Their quarrel should be with the value people place on ability and hard work, if anything; money is only a symbolic proxy for these things.  Spreading money evenly, so that it no longer reflects ability and hard work, won’t fool anyone.

–     If our culture is silly for attaching respect to money-making abilities, it has ways of dealing with its own irrationality.  There is a social taboo against talking about how much money you make.  The ninety-nine per centers and those who agitate about growing in a way break this very useful taboo.

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One thought on “On Redistribution

  1. Pingback: Further Thoughts on Redistribution | thejunglecruise

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