Redistribution: What it Means and Where it Leads

Jack Kerwick
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Posted: Sep 20, 2012 2:26 PM
Redistribution: What it Means and Where it Leads

We now have exhibition 4,003 to prove that, at bottom, Barack Obama’s agenda is and has always been socialistic to the core.

The most recent piece of evidence confirming what, by now, everyone should know all too well is an audio recording of a speech the President delivered at a Loyola University conference back in 1998. It was there and then that Obama called for Americans to “pool resources” in order to “facilitate some redistribution [.]” He unabashedly declared: “I actually believe in redistribution.”

When we couple this with Obama’s now notorious claim that the successful did nothing to deserve their success—“You didn’t build that!”—a larger worldview begins to come into focus.

Yet to see that worldview spelled out, we must go beyond the sloganeering of the leftist politicians who promote redistributionist ideas to the leftist intellectuals who give rise to them.

Philosophers John Rawls and Ronald Dworkin are among the contemporary academic world’s biggest stars. And they are recognized as such because of their ingenuous and tireless efforts to construct an intellectual apparatus for “social justice”—i.e. redistribution.

Rawls devises what he calls “the original position.” In the original position, individuals gather together to determine what kind of society they shall inhabit together. In this regard, it is roughly comparable to what philosophers of an earlier era called “the state of nature.” However, in the original position, individuals stand behind a “veil of ignorance” that blinds them to every one of those characteristics—race, sex, class, religion—that distinguish them from one another in the real world.

Now, because no one knows what his circumstances will be in the society chosen, parties to the original position arrive at a consensus that their society shall be governed by two principles of “justice.”

The first asserts that everyone is to have as expansive a right to liberty consistent with the same right for everyone else. But the second demands that all inequalities that arise from the observance of the first principle must be “arranged” or redistributed in order to benefit “the least advantaged.”

Parties to the original position would agree to this, Rawls thinks, because no one knows whether or not he will be counted among the least advantaged in the new social order.

Notice, society here is treated as a lottery in that no one has done anything to deserve either his standing in it or “the advantages” or “disadvantages” that attach to his standing. (Translation: “You didn’t build that!”) Yet it is unlike a lottery in that—just because one’s fortunes and misfortunes are undeserved—the just society requires of life’s winners that they share their earnings with life’s losers.

Dworkin follows Rawls down this path.

Dworkin contends that a distribution is equal and, thus, just, if it passes what he calls “the envy test.” When a person envies the resources of another, he is willing to exchange his own resources for them. When no one envies the resources of others, then “equality is perfect,” Dworkin says.

A person has two kinds of resources, “personal” and “impersonal.” Personal resources are mental and physical traits—health, strength, talent. Impersonal resources are material goods. The latter depend upon the former, but since no one did anything to earn his personal resources, no one is entitled to keep the impersonal resources that they made possible as long as there are others that envy them.

Unlike impersonal resources, personal resources cannot be redistributed. However, Dworkin is a clear enough thinker to know that if it is permissible for the government to redistribute one’s impersonal resources, then it is no less permissible for it do whatever it can possibly do to make good for inequalities in personal resources when envy extends to them.

Dworkin writes that if the distribution of personal resources fails the envy test, then there must be “compensatory strategies” set in place to “repair…inequalities in personal resources and luck.”

To know the true character of Obama’s redistributionist policies and where they logically lead, we need to know about the theories underwriting them.