Column On Distributive Justice

On Distributive Justice

Tibor R. Machan

        For a long time political
philosophers and such were interested in identifying the nature of
justice.  It started with Socrates and lasted to when John Stuart Mill
did his work, although by that time there had been talk of this thing
called distributive justice.  By now most political theorists dwell on
little else.

        Yet I have never quite understood why
the idea has become so prominent since it is clearly question-begging. 
Distribution is something done by people who have things to distribute,
who are legitimate, rightful owners of what may be wanted from them about town. 
Money, mainly.  So in our day government takes money from people–the
resources they have made, earned, found, won or whatever–and hands it
to some other people (after taking a good cut for itself).  How the
distribution goes may be judged as arbitrary, fair, unfair, corrupt,
or, just.  But all this couldn’t even begin if it were determined that
the initial taking of the resources is wrong.  And as I have managed to
figure these matters, taxing people is wrong.  That means that
distributing what is taken in taxes is also wrong.  Accordingly
distributive justice could not be justice at all.  It is at most
something touched by a bit of generosity, as when bank robbers divvy up
their loot among some needy folks, in what is taken to be a Robin
Hoodish way (but Robin just took money back that had been taken in
taxes instead of taxed people).

        Why is taxation wrong? It is
depriving people of what belongs to them without their consent.  Sure,
some people in a society may consent, by voting for it, to the taking
of other people’s resources but that couldn’t possibly make the
taking anything better than confiscation, an unjust taking because it
involves coercion and lacks the consent of the owners.  And this is
what had been realized, more or less, when individual rights were
finally clearly
enough understood and affirmed by some political philosophers.  Few
came right out and condemned taxation because they held the mistaken
belief that the administration of a just legal system required it, but
it does not.  They had similar ideas about slavery in various places
until finally they gave that up.  They should have given up taxation
along with its conceptual sibling, serfdom.  Both of these had their
home under feudalism and other types of monarchy since in such systems
the government–king, czar, pharaoh, dictator, ruler, politburo or
everything and thus when people live and work withing the realm, they
are made to pay taxes as their rent and fees.  Government in such
permits people to live and work and charges them for this by making
them serve in the military, subjecting them to forced labor, etc.,
etc.  The benefits government provides are privileges, grants from the
sovereign to the subjects. Such systems do not recognize individual

        Distributive justice is a weird
hybrid that combines feudal or monarchical features with those of a
fully free society, one in which it is individuals citizens who are
sovereign, not the government.  But the two, wealth-distribution by
government and justice plainly enough don’t mix, despite how
sophisticated folks claim they do.  Justice requires
acknowledging the sovereignty or self-rule of individuals, with what
government is warranted existing with the full consent of the
governed.  This government has no rightful authority to do any
confiscation or conscription at all. Its sole function is that of a
protector of individual rights or, as the American
Founders put the matter, to "secure [the]… rights" everyone has by
virtue of his or her human nature.  (In America much of this was
discussed but sadly not fully applied since a bunch of perverse ideas,
by powerful recalcitrant people, needed to be accommodated for the sake
of establishing a sustainable country.)

        When one hears of distributive
justice–or another version of this oxymoron, social justice–it is
best to conjure up the idea of a square circle or worse, a free slave. 
Governments that have resources to distribute came by it unjustly, by
seizing it from people who are the just holders of those resources. 

        As to how legal services might be
paid for, well, that is important but the answer cannot be "by
confiscating the resources of those for whom they are being

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