Oliver Anthony and Distributive Justice

It seems like everyone in the country is talking about this song from Oliver Anthony.

The song contains a few lines about the distribution of income that most of the commentary has focused on.

I’ve been sellin’ my soul, workin’ all day

Overtime hours for bullshit pay

‘Cause your dollar ain’t shit and it’s taxed to no end

‘Cause of rich men north of Richmond

Lord, we got folks in the street, ain’t got nothin’ to eat

And the obese milkin’ welfare

Well, God, if you’re 5-foot-3 and you’re 300 pounds

Taxes ought not to pay for your bags of fudge rounds

Part of what has made the song such a flashpoint is that commentators seem to struggle a bit with how to put all of this together in a politically coherent way.

On the one hand, receiving low pay in exchange for selling your soul by working all day because of rich men is a fairly standard left-wing understanding of worker exploitation under capitalism. The left also tends to be more concerned with people suffering from hunger and homelessness than the right.

On the other hand, being taxed to no end by politicians (“rich men north of Richmond”) so that undeserving people (“obese”) can receive government benefits (“welfare”) is a standard right-wing description of how workers are exploited by the welfare state.

The most plausible way to explain what is going on is to say, as Carl Beijer does, that Anthony truly is just a centrist of sorts with undeveloped views. This kind of person is not common in online political forums, but is prevalent in the population overall.

However, there is another way to square all of this that is more interesting as a matter of theory and philosophy.

The lyrics quoted above are focused primarily on the justness of the distribution of income in our society. Wages, taxes, and transfers are explicitly mentioned and, perhaps, you could stretch a bit to say that capital income is indirectly being referenced through the invocation of “rich men” and as the flip side of “bullshit pay.”

There are of course many competing theories of distributive justice, but, among people not especially interested in the philosophy of it all, discussions of distributive justice tend to start (and frequently end) with appeals to one form or another of desert theory.

The animating principle of desert theory is that each person should be distributed an amount of income (or consumption) that is equal to how much they personally produce. This is frequently expressed in terms of each person being owed “the products of their labor” or similar.

My long views about desert theory can be found in this video I recently posted on YouTube.

My brief views on desert theory are as follows:

  1. Desert-patterned distributions are unjust. A distributive system that matched production to income or consumption is one where individuals who do not produce, such as the elderly, the disabled, and children, are entitled to nothing. I think this is wrong.
  2. Calculating desert is impossible. In advanced economies where production is carried out jointly across complex enterprises and value chains, it is not possible to figure out how much of the output “comes from” each particular input. This is both a conceptual impossibility and measurement impossibility.
  3. A lot of output is not attributable to any living person. Although calculating this is impossible for the reasons identified in (2), it seems likely that most of our economic output is, in some sense, attributable to knowledge and technology inputs that were contributed by people who are no longer alive. Desert theory provides no guidance on how to distribute this output just as it provides no guidance on how to distribute the output owing to natural resources that also are not the contribution of any particular person.
  4. Left-wing approaches to desert theory are more compelling. The capital income distributed to wealthy people is a bigger drain on the disposable income of workers than the tax-and-transfer system is, generally speaking. This is especially true for lower-paid workers of the kind Oliver is referencing. Also, the net beneficiaries of our capital income system have far less need for their unearned income than the net beneficiaries of our tax-and-transfer system. So, if you were inclined towards a desert theory approach to distributive justice, which I am not, the left-wing approach is the better of the two.

Oliver’s lyrics do not neatly align with left-wing or right-wing approaches to desert theory, but they align well with a third approach to desert theory that is sometimes called “producerism.”

Whereas left-wing approaches to desert theory draw attention to the parasites at the top (capitalists) and right-wing approaches to desert theory draw attention to parasites at the bottom (welfare beneficiaries), producerists say that the working class is being drained by both kinds of parasites.

On this view, the capitalist shortchanges the worker by distributing to him income that is not equivalent to the output he produces and then the government grinds down that too-low income even further by taxing and transferring it to welfare beneficiaries. Anthony’s lyrics conform to this producerist analysis.