The correct vantage point of distributional debates

I have received some pushback on my last post, and so I thought I might clarify my main point. The bulk of the pushback has been, not surprisingly, from libertarian-leaning folks who believe it is quite clear that when you take private property from one person and then give it to another, that constitutes redistribution. This libertarian objection makes the same mistake that almost all libertarian philosophical points do: it assumes an institution of private property as somehow default and necessarily existing. The implementation of private property systems, like other government programs, is a distributional decision. It does not pre-exist distributional decisions: it is one.

And no, this is not some sort of clever semantical move. As Unlearning Economics succinctly put it on twitter: using law to protect (I would say construct) property is a distributional decision; it constrains some people’s access to resources, just as taxes and whatever else do. Much is made by the libertarians of this really stylized understanding of taxes in which the government bangs down your door with guns and takes things from you. Surely, they protest, this is redistribution.

But ask yourself: is this at all distinct from the equally stylized understanding of private property systems under which every non-street, non-park piece of the city is off limits to me because the government points a gun at me and tells me I must stay off? Is there a meaningful difference between those pictures? Both involve the government violently excluding some pieces of things from some on behalf of others. Now you can make arguments in favor of one or the other, but those arguments will have to be about who deserves what and why. There is no at-a-glance way that allows one to classify these two phenomena into different categories.

The appropriate vantage point to look at distributional policy is from a complete blank slate. This is hard sometimes because some distributional institutions are so ingrained in our minds that we do not even imagine them to be distributional institutions. But if we are going to be serious about the discussion, we have to assume there are no distributional policies in place. From the vantage point of the blank slate, can you tell me which distributional policies are redistributive and which aren’t? No, of course not. There are just a multitude of different distributional policy cocktails that we can select.

The deserted island hypothetical is perhaps a useful one to think about this. 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.

Again, none of this is to say that you cannot form distributional preferences: clearly you can. You might, for instance, think that there is something particularly moral about making sure everyone gets exactly what they produce (for some reason, you are unmoved by the arguments about scarcity, the luck involved in who captures the best parts of the island first, and so on). That is not a totally ridiculous distributional policy objective, but it is just that: an objective, a goal, something you believe is normatively good. Your support for a marginal-productivity distributional policy objective is not based on opposition to redistribution: it is an affirmative endorsement of certain moral ideas about who deserves what.

As I said before, I like hearing those moral ideas. I just do not like a moral debate about who deserves what turning into a debate about who is for or against redistribution. All distributions are redistributive relative to all other distributions. Talking about redistribution, therefore, gets us nowhere.