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8/25/2004 05:41:00 PM | Timothy

If no one deserves anything, why not redistribute wealth? (and this is valid, what justifies political power?)
Will Wilkinson has an article about desert and what he calls the 'luck argument', which he attributes to liberals like Matthew Yglesias and John Rawls. Willlkinson writes:
This argument has an illustrious provenance. In A Theory of Justice, John Rawls, perhaps the most important political philosopher of the 20th Century, argued that
"one of the fixed points of our considered judgments that no one deserves his place in the distribution of natural endowments, any more than one deserves one's initial starting place in society. The assertion that a man deserves the superior character that enables him to make the effort to cultivate his abilities is equally problematic; for his character depends in large part upon fortunate family and social circumstances for which he can claim no credit. The notion of desert seems not to apply to these cases."
And it goes on: we also do not deserve the rewards we have "earned" through the application of the abilities (which we do not deserve) that we cultivated with our good character (which we do not deserve)...
Rawls' conception of desert leaves us with a picture of society where all the rewards have been spread around essentially by chance. Some folks are conceived under the lucky star of Pitt-like looks, Hawkingesque IQs, Gatesian trust-funds and Brazeltonian baby care. But most poor souls were born under uglier, stupider, meaner stars. Those of us who won the genetic and social lottery will naturally try to rationalize our great good luck. We will turn up our calloused palms and tell of the blood and sweat on our every red cent. Yet from the "perspective of the universe," in which self-serving appeals disappear into the vastness of impartiality, the distribution of rewards in our lotto-world appears entirely arbitrary. If a bag of money falls into your lap, that doesn't mean it's really yours.

At this point, the redistributionist tends to argue that since no one has legitimate moral title to his holdings, there can be no objection to taking from the wealthy and giving to the less fortunate in order to "correct" fortune's caprices.
I'm going to take Willkinson's description of the 'luck argument' as a given. I will not judge whether it is attributted correctly to Rawls, and I am not going to defend the argument itself. What I will dispute is what follows if the 'luck argument' is right. Willkinson writes:
Now, one must admit that this is a powerful argument. So powerful, in fact, that it's rather like advocating the destruction of all life on earth in order to prevent another terrorist attack. The luck argument, if it's any good, scorches the dialectical earth, undercutting the possibility of justifying political power, the mechanisms of government redistribution, or, well, anything.
Material inequality is one kind of inequality among many. Political inequality is more troubling by far, for political power is the power to push people around. Coercion is wrong on its face, and so the existence of political inequality requires a specially strong and compelling justification. However, if the luck argument cuts against moral entitlement to material holdings, it cuts equally against any moral entitlement to political power.


I worry there is a slight of hand here, where Willkinson is also implying that the luck argument cuts equally against "the existence of political inequality." It does not. The luck argument can cut equally against a individual moral entitlement to inequalities of all sorts, without being forced into any conclusions about whether material or political inequality should exist. In Rawls's own theory, he speaks of positions in society, which come with attached unequal material rewards. Why should we assume that individual desert can be the only basis for unequal positions? Rawls gives another basis for inequality: namely, that it benefits the worst off. So even though the 'luck argument' seems to cut equally against individual moral entitlement and individual entitlement to political inequality, it does not cut equally against the existence of political inequality. A particular individual's entitlement to a position is not the same thing as the existence of a position with unequal powers (whether it is of material wealth or political coercion).

So Willkinson is wrong to say "The luck argument, if it's any good, scorches the dialectical earth, undercutting the possibility of justifying political power, the mechanisms of government redistribution, or, well, anything." The luck argument would only undercut the possibility of justifying an individual's moral entitlement to political power, not justifying political power itself. Willkinson seems to be smuggling in the additional premise that political power can only be justified if the individual occupying the office deserves it. This is odd. Who would want to claim that the only arguments about the justification of political power involve whether an individual deserves that office? After all, we also argue about whether a particular position should exist (and also whether the procedures will select a person who could fulfill its functions within decent bounds). It does not follow from the luck argument that justification cannot be distinguished from desert.

Willkinson has an additional argument that political inequality is more troubling that material inequality. First, this is his own argument, and those who follow the luck argument are not committed to it. The luck argument only schorches the Earth if we also put in additional premises that need not be there.

Second, I think Willkinson's argument about the danger of the existence of political institutions fails on its own terms. Why? Because political institutions would likely be needed to enforce claims of desert. If Willkinson is right that a I "deserve" a possession, what happens when someone steals something from me? Why, institutions of the state would presumably force someone to return it. This seems to involve coercion, which is what we're supposedly uniquely worried about in Rawls's state. One might reply that state policing is justified and thus is not coercion. You can decide to use language in this way, but then it begs the question of what force is justified. Whether or not police use 'force' or 'coercion' does not change the real world fact that there is still an inequality of authorized discretion and political power and it can be abused. So while the jump from anarchy to a state of any kind may be fraught with danger stemming from the existence of political inequality, what is so special about the jump from a more minimal libertarian state to a state with destribution justified on the luck argument? The first jump introduced political inequality; the second jump involves a difference in degree or type at most. But how does a libertarian (who is not an anarchist) say that political inequality per se is troubling when her own position involves political inequality (some officers enforce rights and decide disputes)?

Now one could argue that libertarians should be anarchists for this very reason. In fact, if desert is so obvious and there is no conflict about it, why not anarchy? (This actually is not entirely rhetorical; I don't know this area of theory well.) And if there are conflicts between individuals over desert or entitlement (and there often are, as we can see in disputes over property) what gives a state official the right to have a greater power to decide these questions than the rest of us? Whatever answer the non-anarchist libertarian gives to this, it involves some persons using force to impose their notions of desert and entitlement at least one other person.



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