One last note on “redistribution”

Following the interaction that culminated in my doing a small survey of wonkblog posts to see how they use the word “redistribution,” there has been more discussing going on. Mike Konczal has this post about redistribution, which builds on a sports metaphor I first saw him unveil on twitter a short while ago.

I don’t want to go too far into Konczal’s post. While I don’t have the Yglesias-style pure hatred of metaphors, I find it a little difficult to work through the basketball metaphor. The best I can tell is he wants to distinguish (roughly) between economic rules that are distributive in effect and distributive in intention. All rules have distributive effects, but some have distributive intentions, which is to say: they are designed and enforced to achieve certain distributive results.

Read his post to make sure I am not messing it up, but I think that’s what is going on. The scenario I’d raise here for this test is the same one I’ve been raising. Suppose we have a certain food stamp regime. Now suppose we say “I think the poor have too much owing to the food stamp regime. We should cut food stamps to fund tax cuts in order to correct this distributive injustice.” Is that redistribution? And if it is, then where exactly does Konczal’s distinction get us? Isn’t it the case that great majority of attempts to cut transfer programs are driven in significant part by specifically distributive intent? What was that food stamp beach bum on Fox News about? Was that not a point about how food stamps are distributively unfair and about how we should change the rules to change the distribution (i.e. to specifically get the food stamps from this beach bum and others like him)?

The Word Itself
To be clear, I don’t actually care if people use the word “redistribution.” I think some people thought I was against that. I am not. I use it plenty. The word is ambiguous though. It can mean changing the distributive rules from one thing to another. It can be a purely relatively term that is used to quantify the difference between two distributions. It can mean deviating from the Everyday Libertarian distribution (the pre-tax market income, if you will). I honestly don’t mind when people use it to mean all of these things. I do it plenty. It’s fine.

But in doing so, you should be clear in what you mean by redistribution, which I like to think I usually am (even though I use it in all of the various ways). More importantly, your use of it should not suggest that the redistribution in question involves a matter-of-fact taking of something from someone that it deeply and truly belongs to and giving of something to someone that it doesn’t. What belongs to who is a normative question. But sometimes, I think, the various technical uses of the word “redistribution” can bleed over into normative meanings or at least suggest normative meanings and conclusions. That bothers me and I think it fuels a lot of confusion in those who don’t know enough about the philosophy on this point to really appreciate the issues involved, which is most people.