A Case for Redistribution, Not Made

Jessica Flanigan, one of the bleeders at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, offers this excuse for ripping money out of the hands of some persons and placing it into the hands of other persons:

Lately I’ve been thinking about my reasons for endorsing a UBI [universal basic income], especially given that I also share Michael Huemer’s skepticism about political authority. Consider this case:

  • (1) Anne runs a business called PropertySystem, which manufacturers and maintains a private currency that can be traded for goods and services. The currency exists in users’ private accounts and Anne’s company provides security services for users. If someone tries to hack into the accounts she prevents them from doing so. The company also punishes users who violate the rules of PropertySystem. So if someone steals or tries to steal the currency from users, that person may have some of their currency taken away or they may even be held in one of PropertySystem’s jails. These services are financed through a yearly service fee.

This sounds fine. If everyone consented to join PropertySystem then they can’t really complain that Anne charges a fee for the services. There will be some questions about those who are not PropertySystem members, and how Anne’s company should treat them. But for the membership, consent seems to render what Anne is doing permissible. Next,

  • (2) Anne thinks that it would be morally better if she gave money to poor people. She changes the user agreement for her currency holders to increase her maintenance fee and she gives some of the money to poor people. Or, Anne decides to just print more money and mail it to people so that she doesn’t have to raise fees, even though this could decrease the value of the holdings of her richest clients.

By changing the user agreement or distribution system in this way, Anne doesn’t seem to violate anyone’s rights. And PropertySystem does some good through its currency and protection services by using the company to benefit people who are badly off. Now imagine,

  • (3) Anne decides that she doesn’t like PropertySystem competing with other providers so she compels everyone in a certain territory to use PropertySystem’s currency and protection services and to pay service fees, which she now calls taxes.

 …[T[here are moral reasons in favor of Anne’s policy changes from (1) to (2). She changed the property conventions in ways that did not violate anyone’s pre-political ownership rights while still benefiting the badly off. If Anne implemented policy (2) after she started forcing everyone to join her company (3) it would still be morally better than policy (1) despite the fact that (3) is unjust.This is the reason I favor a basic income. Such a policy balances the reasonable complaints that people may have about the effects of a property system that they never consented to join. Though redistribution cannot justify forcing everyone to join a property system, it can at least compensate people who are very badly off partly because they were forced to join that property system. Some people will do very well under a property system that nevertheless violates their rights. But it is not a further rights violation if a property system doesn’t benefit the rich as much as it possibly could.

Flanigan’s logical confusion is astounding.

To begin with, if (3) is “unjust,” implementing (2) as a subset of (3) almost certainly expands the scope of injustice. Flanigan assumes, without justification, that those who are “very badly off” in are so “partly because they were forced to join the property system.” What’s much more likely is that those who are “very badly off” would be very badly off inside or outside the property system because they lack the mental or physical wherewithal to better themselves. By the same token, most of those who are very well off under the property system — including most members of that despised straw-man class, “crony capitalists” — probably would be very well off outside the property system because they possess the wherewithal to better themselves.

Flanigan, like most leftists, wants to blame a “system” instead of looking to the ability and determination of individual persons. Blaming a “system” justifies (in the minds of Flanigan and her ilk) “fixes” that are intended to favor those whom they assume to be “victims” of the “system.”

Flanigan’s simplistic taxonomy of cases — (1), (2), and (3) — bears no resemblance to political reality, that is, to the “system” that has existed in the United States, or to the “system” that has prevailed in the world at large for eons. Reality looks more like this:

The current “system” — the U.S. under the Constitution that was ratified by some of the people in 1788 — began with the imposition of a more intrusive central government on all of the people living within the geographical area defined as the United States. The constituent jurisdictions — the States and their political subdivisions — were governed to greater and lesser degrees of intrusiveness. But, slaves and indentured servants excpted, Americans were free to move to jurisdictions that they found more congenial. The westward expansion of the United States under minimalist territorial governments made “exit” an especially attractive and viable option from the late 1700s to the early 1900s. With the end of slavery (but not of government-imposed racial discrimination), negative liberty reached an apogee (for whites, at least) during the late 1800s.

The Progressives of the late 1800s and early 1900s — a vocal and eventually powerful minority — then began to use the central government to impose their paternalistic designs on the populace as a whole. There have since been some pauses in the accretion of power by the central government, and a few reversals in selected areas (e.g., limited “deregulation” of some industries). But the centralization of power has grown steadily since the Progressive Era, and the exit option has became almost a nullity.

Plugging that bit of potted history into Flanigan’s taxonomy, I would say that with the adoption of the Constitution Americans were thrust wholesale into stage (3). Because of the opening of the frontier, however, Americans (or a goodly fraction of them) had a shot at something less onerous for a while (call it 3-minus). But with the ascendancy of D.C. over the hinterlands we’ve all been in stage (3) for several decades. And income redistribution — whether it’s called welfare, Social Security, or UBI — is (a) nothing new and (b) nothing more than one among many features of stage (3).

Nor is that the end of the story. It’s impossible to sort the winners and losers under the “system” that’s been in place since 1788 — or 1781 if you prefer to begin with the Articles of Confederation, or 1607 if you prefer to begin with the first permanent English settlement in the Americas. It would require an intricate analysis of the economic and social effects of all the laws and regulations of the the United States — or the Colonies — and their subdivisions. And it would require the allocation of those effects to every person now living.

But that wouldn’t be enough, would it? Total fairness would require an accounting of the conditions in the various lands from which persons came to the United States, or which were absorbed into the United States. How far back should the analysis go? Perhaps not as far back as the origin of life 3.5 billion to 4.5 billion years ago, but certainly as far back as the advent of homo sapiens about 200,000 years ago. After all, where human beings are concerned there’s no such thing as a pre-political state of nature. Politics is what human beings “do” to get along with each other and to dominate each other, whether the polity in question numbers two or two billion persons.

Any less-detailed accounting, such as the one suggested by Flanigan, is meant to discriminate in favor of those persons (or classes of persons) favored by bleeding hearts, at the expense of those not favored. Why so? Because bleeding hearts (i.e., “liberals”) jump to conclusions about who’s “deserving” and who’s not. Further, they jump to conclusions about groups, not about individual persons, as if every member of an arbitrarily defined group had emerged from the same background, in every particular.

Slave owners jumped to the same conclusions about African Negroes. The all-powerful state — the state that can tax  X and give the money to Y — is the moral equivalent of a slave-owner. Taxation is a form of slavery.



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Related posts:
Negative Rights
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
The Near-Victory of Communism
Tocqueville’s Prescience
Accountants of the Soul
Rawls Meets Bentham
The Left
Our Enemy, the State
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
Rights: Source, Applicability, How Held
What Is Libertarianism?
Nature Is Unfair
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice
More about Merit Goods
What Is Bleeding-Heart Libertarianism?
Liberty, Negative Rights, and Bleeding Hearts
Bleeding-Heart Libertarians = Left-Statists
Enough with the Bleeding Hearts, Already
Not Guilty of Libertarian Purism
Liberty and Society
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
Defining Liberty
The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament
Parsing Political Philosophy (II)
Modern Liberalism as Wishful Thinking
Getting Liberty Wrong
Libertarianism and the State
“Liberalism” and Personal Responsibility
Bleeding Heart Libertarians = Left-Statists (Redux)


  1. Is your point about accounting for conditions in 1787, 1781, 1607 or 200,000 B.C. what you’d call “infinite regress”? A logical dead-end on the part of it’s champions. I think of the idea of “reparations” for slave descendents is a case in point. Who should pay? Not just whites, whose ancestors were slave owners, but also Arab slave traders and in turn those black Africans who captured fellow Africans to sell them, and so on. The problem with doctrines of “unfairness,” as you point out, is that they are highly selective and unrealistic and are usually driven less by humanitarian motives than short-term political or economic greed.


  2. That’s right. Any starting point is arbitrary and bound to favor certain groups over others. There’s only one sure-fire way to avoid such bias: claim reparations for the entire human race because Adam and Eve were ejected from Paradise. 🙂


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