There is no such thing as redistribution

The blogosphere is ablaze with discussions of redistribution: who redistributes to who, how much redistribution is happening, and so on. As it is, the discussion is not particularly lopsided. The right-wing can claim we are redistributing to poor folks because of government programs. The left-wing can claim we are redistributing to rich folks because of copyrights, patents, and various forms of protectionism for high-income jobs. In a more basic sense, it is clear what all these points are really getting at: ill-gotten gains. But calling it redistribution really just muddies the water.

The word “redistribution” implies that there is a distribution that is default, and that we redistribute when we modify the distribution away from it. This, of course, is wrong. There is no default distribution. All distributions are the consequence of any number of institutional design choices, none of which are commanded by the fabric of the universe. In the United States, we have constructed and enforce institutions of private property ownership and contract enforcement. Those institutions generate very different end distributions than we would see if they did not exist. But they do not have to exist by logical necessity, nor do they constitute the default form of economic institutions.

These are very basic examples, but literally every single institutional choice that is made surrounding the economy sets the stage for the distribution that results. We have anti-fraud protections, anti-trust protections, rules concerning labor-management relations, safety rules, pension administration rules, bankruptcy laws, and so on and so on. None of these rules have to exist, and other rules could exist in their place. The cocktail of institutional choices you make dictates the distribution that follows.

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.

Given the incoherent nature of “redistribution” as an objective category, the only thing we are really left to do is debate about which distribution we want. There are millions of possible ways to distribute things in society, and we must choose the one we like. Such a choice is inherently moral, political, and ethical in nature. It starts by making a decision about what everyone deserves, and then determining what is necessary to make that a reality. Right now, people talk as if they think certain things are bad because they are redistributive. But the reality is that they think certain things are redistributive because they think they are bad. And that’s fine, but let’s just be clear about it.