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Wanted: A New Name for “Redistribution” (a reader challenge)

With Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as his running mate, the 2012 election is shaping up to be a battle over whether and how the federal government should tackle the division of wealth in the United States, a gap that has been steadily rising since the 1970s. 

As the debate unfolds this fall, here is one term I propose we put to rest: “redistribution.” 

My problem with redistribution is not philosophical but conceptual and practical. The term is becoming the modern-day equivalent of “leveling”  the epithet Edmund Burke used in the 18th century to criticize the French Revolutionaries. Where Burke’s beef was with the idea of basic human equality, critics of redistribution today summon the image of a Robin Hood state that steals from the rich and gives to the poor.

These critics could be forgiven for their misinterpretation. When we think of “distributions” most of us think of pie, since pie charts are the most common way to represent them. We see a picture of a pie cut into slices, some much bigger than others. And then we imagine someone gazing unhappily at the division, re-allocating the slices more evenly, and sternly serving out the dessert.

The image can be disconcerting, because in a free and quasi-capitalist economy wealth isn’t quite like a pie after all. Americans don’t sit down together at the same table every night and have a slice served to us. We eat our own pie with our own families, separately, and the size of our personal pies corresponds to, among other things, our hard work, our ingenuity, our hunger level, our taste, our parentage, our connections, our luck. 

But no account of distributive justice involves coming into your home and stealing your pie. There is no wealth tax. (At least for the living: Republicans would like to protect your wealth even after you die as well by ending the estate tax.) Distributive justice is about the proper set-up of society, the principles upon which social cooperation proceeds. It is not about re-carving a pie that’s already been cut.

Earlier this week I wrote about Dan Ariely’s study purporting to show that Americans desire a lot more equality than they usually admit, and I distinguished, in a post at the Economist, between “distributive justice” and “allocative justice”:

Mr. Ariely conflates the Rawlsian pursuit of distributive justice—“a fair, efficient, and productive system of social cooperation [that] can be maintained over time, from one generation to the next”—with allocative justice. This may sound like a semantic distinction. It isn’t. Think of it as the difference between cutting up a pizza and giving everyone slices (allocative justice) and developing principles according to which various amounts of pizza end up on people’s plates (distributive justice). In the latter case, no allocator divides the pie for everyone else.

Rawls offers another example of distributive justice from the NBA draft:

The draft rule in a professional sport such as basketball ranks teams in the opposite order from their standing in the league at the end of the season: championship teams go last in the draft of new players. This rule provides for regular and periodic changes in the roster of teams and is designed to ensure that teams in the league are more or less evenly matched from year to year, so that in ay given season each team can give any other a decent game. (“Justice as Fairness,” 51)

The draft rule doesn’t ensure a truly even distribution: one of last season’s worst teams, the New Orleans Hornets, probably won’t contend for the playoffs next season despite acquiring Anthony Davis. But even if the win-loss records of the NBA teams look very skewed a year from now, no one will question the fairness of the distribution. Once the principles of justice are up and running, there is no way to critique a particular outcome as “unjust”:

When everyone follows the publicly recognized rules of cooperation, and honors the claims the rules specify, the particular distributions of goods that result are acceptable as just (or at least not unjust) whatever these distributions turn out to be. (JAF, 50)

A reader at the Economist (seize_the_diem) responded to the allocative vs. distributive distinction with this comment:

Part of the problem may be that distributive justice is easily mixed up with allocative justice. When I hear “redistribution” I think of an unemployed mob coming in the night and redistributing my assets.

Name it something else.

Let’s do that. The last time I can find when Obama used the term as justification for his tax proposal was back in April, and even then he preferred to pitch the Buffett rule differently:

I want to emphasize…this is not simply an issue of redistributing wealth. That’s what you’ll hear from those who object to a tax plan that is fair. This is not just about fairness. This is also about growth. 

So what should the new name be? Rawls’s “justice as fairness” is weak tautological tea, akin to “happiness as contentment” or “milk as dairy product.” We need something juicy on the order of “voodoo economics” but with the very opposite spin. 

I trust Big Think readers will have some big thoughts on the question. Please share your ideas below. A big slice of pie goes to the commenter with most ingenious proposal.

Follow Steven Mazie on Twitter: @stevenmazie

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