The Malign Ethics of Equality

It is 70 years since Bertrand de Jouvenel’s The Ethics of Redistribution was first published. This text rightly remains popular in classical liberal and conservative circles. Among other things, Jouvenel recognizes that it is possible for a society to place a premium on individualism while remaining committed to other shared group values. This, combined with his trenchant criticism of Marxism and socialism, make him indispensable reading for liberty-friendly individuals. 

I revisit the text to draw out two somewhat unnoticed, but important, features. The first is that Jouvenel’s fundamental teaching is not (merely) that redistribution leads to bad outcomes. His primary moral teaching is that redistribution, as a matter of fact, becomes an enemy of all antecedent values. The second point is critical of Jouvenel, albeit in a friendly manner. I think that he does not appreciate how strong his first insight is. Redistributionism spares no antecedent values; it may also spare no antecedent concepts. It is possible that the goal of redistribution can infect discussions of what it means to care for the poor. The very notion of eliminating poverty is not safe from the redistributive impulse. 

Jouvenel distinguishes between relief of the poor and redistributionism: “it is inherent in the very notion of society that those in direct want must be taken care of.” Indeed, it seems that unemployment benefits for subsistence “whether it be a minimum income in days of unemployment or basic medical care for which he could not have paid” is “the primary manifestation of solidarity.” Such a project is one of the primary tasks of society, as Jouvenel sees it. 

Redistribution “is everything which relieves the individual of an expenditure that he could and presumably would have undertaken out of his own purse.” The many deleterious effects of redistribution are the focus of the text in question. This is not a conceptual distinction. Taxation to spare people from extreme want might do the same thing. However, Jouvenel carves out a space for aiding the needy and focuses his criticism on a different phenomenon. 

I will not canvas all of the problems Jouvenel identifies with redistribution. Instead, I want to discuss the fundamental lesson Jouvenel has to offer. Suffice it to say that within Jouvenel’s text, one can break the negative consequences of redistribution into two general kinds: moral and economic. 

Businessmen are regarded as entrepreneurs who require a friendly tax code, while those who start families are not similarly treated.

The impact of redistribution yields an interesting bipartite shift. On the economic side, it yields a shift in terms of who provides various goods and services. It is a shift from private individuals to the government. This is accompanied by a moral shift in how different institutions are valued. Once one focuses one’s concerns on the distributional patterns of wealth or income in society, entities that produce goods become vitally important. 

One such example that occupies Jouvenel is the privilege that governments grant to corporations over families. This privilege, at least as Jouvenel openly discusses it, is seen in the way that government thinks about the importance of each. Businessmen are regarded as entrepreneurs who require a friendly tax code, while those who start families are not similarly treated. He writes, “It is quite incomprehensible that a breeder of dogs for the race-track should be allowed his costs… while (the family) is not.”

There are other moral consequences. A society viewed through a redistributionist lens would judge the good of society in terms of “maximized…sum of subjective satisfaction.” But that is not the judgment that “anyone with a Christian background or a classical education” would have. A commitment to redistribution may change the way one thinks of a good society. Presumably, there are some preferences that virtue, for example, might require us to restrain or overcome. If I enjoy watching videos of athletes getting injured, the preference-satisfying view might hold that my doing so is part of a good society. It is difficult to find such a view in the Greek and Christian tradition.  

Finally, individuals lose their power to provide goods, services, and care to others. He writes that “a paradoxical outcome of the socialist policies that those services which were rendered without thought of reward should be on their way to disappearance.” This does not need to be limited to socialism though. Anyone who has the impulse to redistribute is susceptible to marketizing erstwhile freely provided goods and services. If one wishes to redistribute to ensure that everyone has equal opportunities, for example, one could favor the government’s delivery of goods and services that were available, though perhaps unequally, in years past. Jouvenel explicitly discusses the private funding of authors and artists as examples here. 

What I want to draw attention to is the fact that these are just examples of bad consequences that can and have followed from redistributionist policies. Jouvenel tells us toward the end of his second lecture that “unless…all prevailing values are discredited, it is inevitable that the redistributionist State should assume the upkeep of those values.” But the deeper worry is that it will not do so. The deeper concern is that the redistributionist desire will trump prior values. This suggests that we should be leery of giving in to the redistributionist impulse in both ourselves (if we have it) and others, for the antecedent values we have cannot be safeguarded from the demands of redistribution. They cannot be safeguarded either in terms of what actually happens, or in terms of people’s attitudes toward what happens. 

Jouvenel is prescient in this regard. We can see this in laws prohibiting feeding the poor or building houses for the homeless without a permit. I could take autonomy to be vital to the development of one’s moral character. I could see that the initiative to eliminate a problem is at the core of being a good person. But if I also think that the state should be given jurisdiction over decisions regarding the relief of homelessness, I will inadvertently have relieved individuals of their ability to do one of the things that makes autonomy important. Worse, I—or others—might come to think that this problem is intractable. The government is properly in charge of this and there is nothing they can do about it. It is not for me unilaterally to get up and fix the problem. Something like this attitude seems to be common among otherwise good and caring people in California, for example. In some municipalities, it is illegal to feed the poor. In the city of Los Angeles, thousands of tiny homes for the homeless have been seized by the city. 

The redistributionist urge could be resisted; it could be rendered subservient to other values; but it might still manifest in a different way.

Those of us who have read John Rawls might wonder why we may not just give the antecedent values some kind of lexical priority over redistributionism. Rawls famously privileges his principle of equal basic liberties over his distributional principle. He claims that it is impermissible to impinge upon the principle of equal basic liberties to achieve a distribution that better satisfies his distributional principle. One might wonder why this approach is unavailable to anyone with distributionist aspirations. When the core of antecedent values comes into conflict with redistributionism, the former should win. 

Jouvenel approaches many—but not all—of the issues in The Ethics of Redistribution as a practical thinker. He is armed with empirical facts about what happens in the world. He then traces these occurrences to their conceptual origins. So a philosopher could certainly show that it is possible to combine mild redistributionism with a commitment to antecedent values. That fails to show that there is any reason to believe that real political trends will adhere to that scaling of commitments. 

In this regard, I do not think that Jouvenel fully cashes out his vital insight. The redistributionist urge could be resisted; it could be rendered subservient to other values; but it might still manifest in a different way. Even the modest commitment to a social safety net is susceptible to the weaknesses of redistributionism, but this is not a point that Jouvenel stresses in the text. 

One way the redistributionist urge could manifest itself is by thickening what is involved in the idea of providing for the “subsistence” and “direct wants.” One might treat ever-expanding levels of education as necessary for subsistence. A career that one enjoys or finds satisfying might count as a direct want. Reliable internet access might be lumped in there as well. This list is not fabricated. Various redistributionists identify these and many more as part of satisfying basic needs of humans. 
This rearing of the redistributionist head is something that can occur quite innocently. Jouvenel is aware that many pernicious outcomes arise from reasonable concerns. Relieving poverty by decreasing the taxes the poor pay during war is not a “conscious policy of breaking down taxpayers’ resistance” to taxation. It is merely one of the reasons people became less resistant to taxation. But what The Ethics of Redistribution warns us against is the threat redistribution poses for other values. One must guard against allowing it even to infect how one thinks about what Jouvenel sees as one of the fundamental goals of society: relief of extreme want.