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Running Head: Distributive Justice: Libertarianism, Socialism, and Welfare Liberalism

Welfare Liberalism: The Greatest Framework of Distributive Justice

Breanna Lebsack Philosophy October 15, 2010



Distributive Justice The issue of distributive justice deals with how a government should distribute its wealth. Is it the government’s job to relinquish class differences? Or is the government’s primary responsibility to protect human autonomy and stay out of the economic sphere? Philosophical opinions on distributive justice are vast and diverse, and date all the way back to Aristotle1. The differing philosophical opinions on this issue are best understood in the context of two political values: freedom and equality (Cowan & Spiegel, 2009, p. 396). On the one extreme, there are libertarians. Libertarians believe that freedom should be the predominating value, and that government has no right to interfere into the personal wealth of the people. On the other extreme, lie the socialists. Socialists, in contrast, value equality above all else, and believe that it is the government’s responsibility to spread the wealth to each citizen equally. Although both extremes provide valuable insights into the debate on distributive justice, they are incomplete in and of themselves, and therefore, as a political philosophy are completely inept in creating a just society. The answer does not lie in either of these extremes, but rather in a compromise of both. Welfare liberalism acknowledges the potential in libertarian and socialist philosophies and combines the best of both. Welfare liberalism, because it recognizes the importance of both individual freedom and corporate wealth distribution, provides the most balanced framework of distributive justice, and is the most fair to the largest amount of people.

In Aristotle’s Politics, book II he gives an argument endorsing the right to private property. 1



The Pendulum: Freedom vs. Equality Libertarianism: Freedom for All? Libertarianism places freedom as the highest value in the distributive justice debate. Because of this, Liberationists believe that government has no right to intrude into people’s wallets or regulate the economy. John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) provided a convincing argument for libertarianism in which he states that “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others” (Mill, 1956, p.13). In other words, according to Mill, I am free to do whatever I want as long as it doesn’t harm someone else. If such is the case, than what right does government have to redistribute wealth, or legislate laws over businesses? The major benefit of libertarianism is takes advantage of people’s natural motivation towards self-interest. Adam Smith (1723-1790), a champion of laissezfaire economics, proposed that when people are acting in self-interest, they work harder and are more productively. As a result, when someone is acting in self-interest “he frequently promotes that of society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it” (Smith, 1937, p. 423). The moral justification behind libertarianism is that it’s benefits and consequences are driven by human autonomy. Robert Nozick (1938-2002) gives a hypothetical of Wilt Chamberlain, a famous basketball player, who has a million people willing to give 25 cents to watch him play. Wilt now has $250,000 (much more than anyone else in society). Is this fair? Nozick claims that it is because all the transactions were made in through consensual transactions (Nozick, 1974) Criticisms



Nozick’s moral argument has a major fallibility. Libertarianism arbitrarily “restricts considerations of justice to the context of resource transfers while it ignores the context of resource holdings” (Cowan & Spiegel, 2009, p. 398). For example, imagine a boy born into an extremely wealthy family. His parents pay for his schooling, and he inherits the profitable family business. Now in contrast, consider a young boy born into a family that has been impoverished for generations with no way out of his impecuniosity. Neither of these boys did anything to earn the situation that they were born into, so why should the government be required to treat them as if they did? The second reason why Libertarianism is inept as a political philosophy is because it would result in vast inequalities between the wealthy and the poor. The problem with trickle-down economics is that the wealth rarely trickles all the way down to the poor. In an economy with no government regulations, the working class is more easily exploited by corporate greed. Imagine what the average salary would be if there was no such thing as minimum wage. Political theorists such as Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), see such inequalities as a societal benefit because libertarianism is acting as a form of “Social Darwinism”. According to Spencer, the competent will gain the wealth while the incompetent will end up in the slums. One must resist any impulse to give charitably to the poor, as it would interfere with nature’s natural course of survival of the fittest (Spencer, 1857). Spencer’s libertarian depiction is callous and cruel to say the least. The natural result of Libertarianism would result in impoverished masses and a small class of rulers who hold the majority of the wealth.



Historical Example The closest that we can get to seeing the empirical ramifications of libertarianism is through the American Gilded Age, a time in which free-capitalism was a predominating view among politicians and philosophers. In 1890, 11 million of America’s 12 million families earned less that $1200 per year. The average annual income was well below the poverty line at $380 (Newman, 2007). While it was a time of progress and profit for the business world, the masses were plagued with poverty, crime, and corruption. Although American never participated in full libertarianism (there were still government programs, regulations, and charities), the fact that even partial adherence to libertarianism brought such inequalities, makes the success of a full-fledged libertarian society all the more unlikely (Newman, 2007) Socialism: Equally Destitute Socialism is the exact opposite from Libertarianism. Instead of placing freedom as the ultimate value, socialism places equality as the ultimate value. Plato first developed this economic view in his Republic. In describing his idea of a utopian society, Plato, developed the idea of a soldier class sharing all their goods and resources with one another. “From embarrassments and the pains of the poor… and the procuring of money for the necessities of life for their households, the borrowings, the repudiations…and all the indignities that they endure in sure matters…from all these… they will finally be free, and they will live a happier life than the men count most happy.” (trans. Shorey, 2005, p. 703). The man who is most widely known for developing the socialist philosophy is Karl Marx (1818-1885). Marx explained political history through a series of revolutions in which the “proletariat” (the underprivileged masses) overthrow the



“bourgeoisie” (the minority ruling class), and then in turn establish their own new bourgeoisie in which the process inevitably repeats itself. According to Marx’s theory, the only way to break this cycle is to create a truly just society in which all goods are shared. There should be no private ownership of property or production because everything is owned by society as a whole. The only goods to be made are those that are necessary for everyday life, therefore, everyone’s job is vitally important (Marx, 1969, p. 42). Criticisms Although, the socialist vision developed by Marx is attractive in many ways, it has some major downfalls. First of all, socialism does not take into account human nature. If everything is shared then what motivation does someone have to work hard? If my neighbor is being lazy, than why should I make up his workload when we are getting the same benefits? The second major criticism of socialism is that it is not feasible. Theoretically, all the people own all the goods, but realistically, it is it impossible for everyone to run everything. The obvious result is for a small group of people to assume control. The irony here is unbearable. With the rationale of creating a system to check powerhungry corporations and greedy businesses, socialism in turn hands absolute control to a totalitarian regime. Historical Evidence The evidence for socialism’s inadequacies is seen blaringly throughout the political history of the 20th century. “Between Marxist systems in Russia and China and the Nazis (National Socialist Party), at least 70 million innocent people were slaughtered.” (Cowan & Spiegel, 2009, p. 401). This fact alone is provides the “closet



things possible to an empirical refutation of philosophical thesis� (Cowan & Spiegel, 2009, p. 401). Welfare Liberalism: The Best of Both Worlds It is obvious that neither libertarianism nor socialism is adequate in themselves. Libertarianism advocates freedom to the neglect of equality, while socialism advocates equality to the neglect of freedom. Luckily, there is a compromise. This political philosophy is called welfare liberalism. Welfare liberalism recognizes the benefits and consequences of valuing equality and freedom. However, as was discovered previously, these values often contradict. In such an instance, what does a welfare liberal do? Political Philosopher, John Rawls (1921-2002) addresses this issue in his A Theory of Justice by stating that the correct system of distributive justice is the one that does the greatest good (Rawls, 1971, p. 60). In other words, society must be guided by whatever principle is most just. What does the most good for the greatest amount of people? Arguments One of welfare liberalism's strengths is that, like libertarianism, it takes advantage of people’s self-interest. People remain the right to own property and businesses, and therefore, also keep their motivation to work and benefit society as a whole. The fact that welfare liberalism allows for a measure of inequalities also provides an incentive for people to work hard and move up the socio-economic ladder. Welfare Liberalism also adopts the socialistic concern about unfair class gaps and inequalities. Although Welfare Liberalism differs from socialism in that it allows class differences, it is careful to keep the welfare of the masses in mind. Programs such as Medicaid, social security, food stamps, and a graduated income tax system are



examples of ways that welfare liberalism provides a safety net for the poor and a check and balance on the wealthy. The fact that welfare liberalism maintains a moderate gap between the classes helps keep a society stable. Under welfare liberalism, the class boundaries are not impassable. This provides lower classes with a hope for a better life, and avoids the prototypical proletariat revolts described by Marx. Historical Example Modern United States is a perfect example of a country abiding by welfare socialism. After the promotion of free-capitalism during the Gilded Age, many Americans became members of the socialist party because it addressed many of the blaring inequalities. During the Progressive Era, the National government fully embraced Welfare Liberalism as a compromise, and in doing so, preserved the American dream (Newman, 2007). Application Along with it’s practical benefits, welfare Liberalism also aligns most properly with a Biblical worldview. Welfare liberalism aligns with the scriptural responsibility for charity to the poor (Proverbs 22:9), while also recognizing the importance of personal responsibility (Proverbs 10:4). Throughout scripture, state mandates were given to meet the basic needs of the poor. For example, in Lev. 23:22, the Israelites were given the mandate to leave the crops at the edges of their field for the poor to eat. Another example of biblical wealth redistribution is made evident through God’s sanctioning the year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25: 8-55, NIV). During the year of Jubilee (every fifty years), all slaves were set free and land was returned to its original owners. This ensured that no Israelite was ever



in permanent slavery, or ever permanently lost their inheritance. These statesanctioned examples and more prove that scripture strongly embraces wealth distribution. Despite the great charity in the Bible, scripture was also extremely practical about the issue of poverty. While advocating charity, Deuteronomy 15:11 also states “the poor will always be among you” (NIV). Scripture also embraced class differences as a motivation stating, “the sluggard will be overcome with poverty” (Proverbs 6:911, NIV). Paul stresses personal responsibility when he commands, “If anyone isn’t willing to work, he should not eat” (Thessalonians 3:10). Scripture recognizes the need for charity as a means for providing the poor’s basic needs. It also recognizes the continual existence of poverty, the importance of personal responsibility, and self-interest. Welfare Liberalism is the only distributive justice philosophy that can account for all of those Biblical values. Welfare liberalism, in conclusion, provides the greatest philosophical framework for distributive justice.

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Cowan, S.B. & Spiegal, J.S. (2009). The love of wisdom: A Christian introduction to philosophy. Nashville, Tennessee: B&H Publishing Group. Marx, Karl. Marx’s concept of man: German ideology. Trans. T.B. Bottomore. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1969. Mill, J. On liberty. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1956. Newman, John. United States history: preparing for the advanced placement examination. Campbell, CA: Paw Prints, 2007 Nozick, Robert. Anarchy, state, and utopia. New York: Basic Books, 1974. Plato. The republic, trans. Paul Shorey, in The collected dialogues of Plato. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005). Rawls, John. A theory of justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971. Smith, Adam. Wealth of nations. New York: Random House, 1937. Spencer, Herbert. Progress: its law and cause. 1857. The Holy Bible: New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984.

welfare liberalism