Monday, December 01, 2008

Conservatism, Liberalism, and Economic Luck

In reading the responses of conservatives to what they consider to be the threat of socialism, there is the presupposition, which I have yet to see specifically defended, that what ends up in our pockets before taxation is genuinely distributed in accordance with merit. People who work with their brains earn more, and deserve more, than people who work with their hands. Therefore, deliberate use of the tax system and government welfare to "spread the wealth around" are bad, because they are in effect theft. The money was where it belonged in the first place, and those dirty socialists want to put it somewhere else that they think is fair.

This view has a tendency to deny, or downplay, the role economic luck plays in the distribution of wealth and income. I seem lucky to have been born in America than in the Congo, had I been born in the Congo, chances are I would be a good deal poorer than I am today.

John Rawls seems to think that the influence of economic luck is quite extensive.

"It seems to be one of the fixed points of our considered judgments that no one deserves his place in the distribution of native endowments, any more than one deserves one's initial starting place in society. The assertion that a man deserves the superior character that enables him to make the effort to cultivate his abilities is equally problematic; for his character depends in large part upon fortunate family and social circumstances for which he can claim no credit. The notion of desert seems not to apply to these cases" (Rawls, p. 104 A Theory of Justice).

I never see this issue of economic luck explicitly debated. Yet, what people think of ecomonic luck pushes a lot of people toward one of the other of the major parties.

1 comment:

Mike Darus said...

Is this your argument?
1) People are not entitled to ownership of unearned income.
2) Income received because of luck is unearned.
3) People are not entitled to ownership of income obtained as a result of luck.

If you replace "luck" with "providence," there is no such thing as ownership. This is an attitude that could promote generosity, but not much of a basis for social policy.