Adam Ozimek of Forbes’ Modeled Behavior wrote a response to a recent post of mine. In my post — which had a follow up post — I argue that the concept of redistribution is a misguided one. There is no such thing as redistribution, just different distributions:

So there is no baseline default distribution against which we can measure redistribution. Instead, there are a multiplicity of possible distributions, none of which is more natural, or less interventionist, or whatever than any other. All of these possible distributions can, in a sense, be called redistributive relative to all the other possible distributions. But calling them redistributive tells us nothing more than that they differ from each other.

After remarking that private property is a social construct as opposed to a government construct — a point whose significance I do not fully comprehend — Ozimek writes this:

Imagine a plane crashes on an uninhabited island with many survivors. It is clear to all that they will be here for the rest of their lives, outside of the laws of their different homelands. Imagine one man walking up to another and casually taking the watch off his wrist. “Hey what are you doing?” the man losing his watch would say. “We haven’t elected a government and defined private property yet, so you can’t own this”. Does this sound plausible? I don’t think so. Sure, you could easily imagine one man taking the watch because he is stronger, and nobody can stop him. But both the taker or the takee would understand that the man’s property is being taken. Both thief and owner recognize private property even in the absence of a government or legal system, and even if the thief chooses to ignore this.

Even though this example is wrong-headed, I love it because it illustrates the main point of my follow up post about the correct vantage point of distributional debates. I argue that to talk meaningfully about distribution, we have to think about it as a blank slate. If, in our discussions, we assume certain pre-existing institutions, holdings, or anything else, the debate gets very muddled. In the hypothetical Ozimek gives, the watch is brought into a blank slate scenario (deserted island) as pre-existing property. The possessor got hold of it through a previous set of distributional institutions. He was not born with it. It was not naturally his. Some prior society made institutional choices that resulted in that watch being distributed to him. If the stranded individuals recognize that watch as belonging to him, they are importing the legitimacy that previous distributional institutions granted to that watch being possessed by that man.

That individuals might respect the consequences of prior distributional institutions even when the structures that impose and enforce them disappear does nothing to my point about the emptiness of “redistribution.” A better hypothetical — one that does not smuggle pre-existing property into a blank slate situation — is, well, my blank slate situation that also relied upon the deserted island scenario. Here is what I wrote in the follow up post:

If a bunch of people landed on a desert island, they would have to figure out how they are going to manage the finite resources that island has. Suppose there were two policy cocktails up for proposal. In one policy cocktail, individuals would be permitted to draw lines around pieces of the island — if they get there first — and exercise exclusive control over those pieces. In a second policy cocktail, individuals would be permitted to do basically the same thing, but everyone would be required to chip in 30% of what they make off their piece of the island into a common fund that might be used as a basic income or for some other purpose. Perhaps many in the stranded group worried that all the good spots might be grabbed up, leaving them with nothing. Or whatever.

Now tell me, from the vantage point of starting from 0, which one of these distributional policy cocktails is redistributive? Both result in different distributions, but is one redisitributive as a matter of some objective evaluation? No. The pieces of the island do not belong to anyone inherently: what belongs to whom is a consequence of the distributional policy choice. So when the second option is selected with the 30% in common rule, nobody is having anything taken from them. That 30% does not belong to them; it never did belong to them per our distributional institutions.

My challenge to Ozimek or others who want to say there is meaningful content to the word “redistribution” is to describe — from a blank slate — how we are supposed to figure out what is redistributive and what is not. That is, assume nothing has yet been distributed to anyone (including watches), and from that vantage point tell me which institutions are redistributive and which are not. I think it is impossible to do so. Nothing necessarily belongs to anyone: we make it belong to them via our distributional institutions, whatever they might be.

PS: Read the comments on Ozimek’s post. They are very good.