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On "Four Forms of Redistribution"

by Anthony Flood

This is a commentary on Jonathan Wolff's paper "Four Forms of Redistribution" which can be found at, and also in Philosophy Pathways Issue 53. A longer version of Professor Wolff's paper, "The Message of Redistribution: Disadvantage, public policy and the human good" is available for download at

I appreciate the invitation Dr. Geoffrey Klempner gave me to comment on Professor Wolff's paper. At first I was not sure how to respond, however, because he does not defend the propositions on which his arguments depend. Rather, he presupposes their truth while addressing an audience who does likewise. Whitehead's observation in Science and the Modern World that sometimes statements "appear so obvious that people do not know what they are assuming because no other way of putting things has ever occurred to them" came to mind.

The presumption of consensus uncharacteristic of philosophical papers permeates this one. The pronoun "we" occurs 38 times, but never as the editorial "we." That is, it is not an author's device for avoiding the pronoun "I". It is the "we" that fellow-laborers in a common cause use to address each other. Since I am not one of them, however, I felt as if I was eavesdropping.

"I" and "we" occur together tellingly for the first time in the second paragraph: "If I were to propose that...we offer her a cash lump sum...." My question to Professor Wolff is, "Why don't you offer her cash (or whatever)?" Of course, he probably does not regard himself or his fellow redistributionists as personally obligated to solve her problem any more than they are financially able to do so.

The point of the redistributionist program as I understand it is that money or other resources, regardless of who owns them, must be moved from around society so that they can do more good as that program defines "good." Professor Wolff apparently does not believe that only the owner of a resource has the moral right to deploy it. It is an interesting question whether he holds that a beneficiary of "redistribution" morally owns his or her benefit, such that no one may rightfully forcibly deprive him or her of it, even forcible expropriation made it available in the first place.

The idea of exclusive moral ownership of resources is the only idea I have with which to counter redistributionism. Until that idea is defeated, however, the discussion of the various "messages" that redistributionists send to "their" beneficiaries cannot hold my interest. There is a passing reference to "public action" that allegedly "rectifies" someone's "disadvantage" that no one knowingly imposed. Does "public action" itself involves the imposition of foregone opportunities on innocent parties? We are not told. Professor Wolff is concerned only with how "we" ought to frame our offer of forcibly expropriated resources lest we add insult to an injury we did not in any case inflict. (If he has any interest in the insult or injury that those who are expropriated sustain, he does not express it in this paper.)

Professor Wolff asks us to consider a very low-skilled individual who can support only a poor standard of living, one that is "less than is right." "What should we do?," he immediately asks. I fail to see why that is the first question. For instance, why is that person so low-skilled? How low is "low"? What is "poor"? Might the answers to these questions depend in part on an understanding of historical time and place? There is no sense that this is the case in Professor Wolff's paper. His discussion implies some notion of what is right, for it has one of "less than is right." He does not suggest that someone stole from this individual something that was his by right, which theft consequently made him poor. This person may, for all that Professor Wolff has shown to the contrary, have everything that he has is entitled to have.

Even if, after knowing more about this person, I came to agree with Professor Wolff that he or she could do much good with more resources, I am sure that we would still disagree over the means by which he or she may acquire them. For while I would not force Professor Wolff to pay any costs associated with improving that individual's lot, I am not sure he would grant me the same freedom.

Professor Wolff seems to presuppose that, generally speaking, all persons with needs have enforceable claims on all persons who are capable of meeting them. That is, A's need per se is an enforceable claim on some B (or some set of persons {B...n}). Grant that, however, and the rest is administrative detail. The result of the consistent implementation of this precept would be to make us all equal in poverty. For that program would slowly but surely grind to a halt the wheels of the production of the very things that are allegedly distributed inequitably, thereby guaranteeing that they would not be distributed at all.[1]

A word about Professor Wolff's key term. It seems to trade on the legitimacy enjoyed by Aristotle's discussion of "distributive justice" (one form of "particular justice," the other form being "rectificatory") in the Nicomachean Ethics (1130b-1131a). Aristotle's context is statist: distributive justice is something the State dispenses. The State has resources that it must allocate in the interest of the "common good." But how did the State acquire them? Did it violate justice in doing so? After all, the State has no resources it did not acquire by force or the threat thereof. The State is not a family whose individuals members have voted on where to go for their summer vacation and who now must cooperate to make the trip a success. Neither, as Joseph Schumpeter wryly noted in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, is the State a club to which we owe dues. I will not insult the reader by spelling out why the State is not like a family or a club, but I wonder whether some such notion underlies the rationale for "redistribution."

"Redistribution" is a political notion. It refers to the economic sphere where the things to be "redistributed" are first produced, but it has no distinctly economic meaning. After the production and the exchange of what is produced there is no remainder. In a society of voluntary exchange, as Mises put it, there "is no such thing as an appropriation of portions out of a stock of ownerless goods. The products some into existence as somebody's property. If one wants to distribute them, one must first confiscate them."[2]

Perhaps the redistributionist fear is that if the fruits of production accrue only to producers, then the economy will be like a moving car without a driver, always about to careen out of control. "Distribution," being mindless in the sense of without direction, needs to be done mindfully. To avoid a crack-up the harvest of all our labors needs to be "redistributed." But "distribution" is not mindless. The word is a misnomer for voluntary exchange which, while not single-minded, is not for that reason mindless. It is the coordination of many minds, many plans of flesh-and-blood individuals who have dreams of their own. There is, therefore, no need for a corrective scheme of "redistribution" that can easily become a source of injustice, economic malady, and debilitating despair.

Most of Professor Wolff's paper entertains various ways that redistributionists might go about their business: compensation, refashioning the economy, etc. As they all presuppose what is most in need of examination, there is little reason for me to comment on them.

I found common ground with Professor Wolff when he mentioned that basic goods are not substitutable for each other. Our human nature sets for each of us the task of creating for ourselves good lives, lives characterized by the enjoyment, and prospect of the regular or routine enjoyment, of all, or very nearly all, of the kinds of basic intrinsic goods that a human being desires (e.g., good health, gratifying work, love, etc). We tend not to describe a human life as good if any basic, intrinsic good is missing. I was therefore pleased to read that "goods may not be substitutable, in that it is simply not true that enough of one can make up for any lack of another, because failing to be as one should in one respect cannot be repaired by being given more of something else. Money is no compensation for lack of education or lack of mobility..." But then, after a semicolon, he drops the other shoe: "...redistribution has to be made in the specific dimension which is lacking." Non sequitur!

I do, however, agree absolutely with one sentence of Professor Wolff's: "Difficult questions cannot be avoided if we want to engage in redistributive policies." But they can if we don't.


1. See Ludwig von Mises, Human Action [1949], 4th ed., ed. by Bettina B. Greaves (Irvington, NY: Foundation for Economic Education, 1996), esp. Chapter XXXII, "Confiscation and Redistribution." The complete text of this classic in .html or .pdf format is freely available, chapter by chapter or as a whole: The Mises Institute's site is an armamentarium in the defense of sound economics against socialist and other anti-market fallacies which, despite the empirical confirmation that Mises' early 20th-century theoretical predictions enjoyed, die such a hard death and assume so many forms.

2. Ibid.

© Anthony Flood 2003