Anthony de Jasay: To Each His Own, To Each the Same, in: Political Philosophy, Clearly: Essays on Freedom and Fairness, Property and Equalities, pp. 119-138

To Each His Own, To Each the Same
by Anthony de Jasay

Our remote ancestors were hunter-gatherers, wandering around in small bands looking for food. Some members of the band might have had a run of luck, found lots of berries or caught many fish, while the others found and caught none for weeks on end. It is widely believed that those who had plenty of food, instead of gorging themselves in self-satisfaction for being clever, shared the food with those who had none. When the run of luck was reversed, the roles of benefactor and recipient were reversed, too. If some were always cleverer at finding and catching than others, which is not unlikely to have been the case, there was no reversal of roles, and the same hungry were always duly fed thanks to the generosity of the clever.

This pattern of behaviour, if it really existed, did nothing much to select our more clever ancestors for survival, but it did select for survival and increase the bands that practiced redistribution. The bands that did not would shrink and in evolutionary equilibrium probably disappear. Thus, share-and-share-alike has become part of our genetic heritage, though its force might not have acted much beyond the circle of close kinship.

Redistribution has ceased to be a useful strategy for genetic survival with the adoption of sedentary food production that was not very dependent on local luck or personal cleverness. (It was and has remained dependent on wide-area luck, such as regular rainfall, but against such events as drought there was no survival strategy of food-sharing, for there was only shared misery to redistribute). The more output increased above bare subsistence levels, the less relevant became redistribution to genetic survival. For the last ten millennia, it has probably been close to irrelevant for saving genes from extinction.

However, a very basic human interest continued to attach to it with undiminished, and in modern history perhaps increasing, strength. Everyone has in his sights other people who possess and enjoy more desirable things than oneself, and everyone, with the possible but doubtful exception of the jaded rich and the blissfully happy, can envisage some design of redistribution under which he would have more of these things and others would have less. Jealousy and envy need play no part in this, though they probably do. It suffices that everybody should prefer to have more transferable goods rather than fewer, and that most people should feel no altruistic compunction about such things being transferred from others to themselves.

If we do not need redistribution for survival, but enough of us are strongly tempted by it for other reasons, there is a vast vacuum for philosophical arguments of varying degrees of ambition and audacity to fill, aiming to show that what might be nice for many would also be right as it would be socially just.

The present essay will first briefly survey the attempts to provide philosophical justification for redistribution by placing equality on the moral high ground (Section I). It will then describe the opposite high ground, namely that marked out by certain simple logical presumptions (Section II). Finally, it will descend into the intellectually less ambitious low ground between the two heights, where actual and proposed schemes of redistribution become the objects, not of moral or logical argument, but of collective choices.


1. The Identification Of Social Justice

The meaning of “social” in “social justice” is not obvious. It is left unsaid in what way adding the adjective “social” signifies a real distinction between justice with and justice without such adornment. Loose hints would give us to understand that social justice has to do with distribution, (or indeed that it simply means “distributive justice”), but this cannot be right, for justice tout court is no less distributive than social justice; albeit putting different principles to work in shaping a distribution. However, no justice can help being distributive.

Justice tout court may best be identified by reference to the set of rules that must be complied with for a state of affairs to qualify as just. The evident difficulty of this approach is that each of the rules must be agreed to be just by those who are expected to comply with it, and this agreement must have stood the test of time and experience. It is such agreement with the rules that qualifies the state of affairs as just.

There is in the world of empirical facts a prominent set that matches this description. It is the one whose members are conventions that have arisen spontaneously in the past and continue to survive. They coordinate behaviour on mutually beneficial norms, and sanction deviations from them. A crucial characteristic of these rules is that they are ascertainable, empirical facts and not outcomes of theoretical deliberations, nor deductions about what people would agree to in hypothetical circumstances, nor obedience to commands of final authority.

In striking contrast with justice that is defined by rules, social justice has no rules that, if complied with, would define a socially just state of affairs. However, though it cannot be described in terms of its rules, it can be given an albeit vague descriptive meaning in terms 0of its aspirations and in terms of what it is said to be doing. Social justice aspires to transform inequalities into equalities, and its acts, such as redistribution by fiscal or other means, are aimed at such transformations. Section II.2 sets out reasons for holding that such transformations are largely illusory and generally amount to creating an equality by obliterating another.

Why does it have this aspiration and why does it act upon it? If the question is asked at all (which happens seldom), the standard answer is: social justice demands equality because inequality violates it. This is, of course, blatantly tautological and no claim to the moral high ground based on it could stand even cursory examination.

In fairness to social justice, its claim to the high ground is not as empty as its tautological form makes it look. .By Kantian inspiration, it relies on the ethical principle of generality or equal treatment, from which it would follow that inequality is morally bad because it is not equality, whereas equality is morally good because it conforms to the postulated ethical principle. The force of the generality principle will be tested in the next section. By way of a preview, we may intimate that the elusiveness and inconsistencies of social justice owe much to the all-encompassing capacity of the vast family of equalities, all of which cannot be squared with one another at any one time.

2. The Selection Of Equalities

In order to minimise the risk of muddle as we proceed down this road, it seems necessary at the outset to inflict on the reader the tedium of some conceptual order. A distribution describes the (at least ordinally quantifiable) goods or bads, rewards or punishments, praise or blame, honours, privileges, benefices and burdens, assets and debts, incomes and costs that in a given state of affairs accrue to their recipients, or are claimed for them by some argument. Equality or equal treatment is some regularity of the distribution, such that it will with reasonable accuracy predict the share of each actual or prospective recipient in the distribution of the good or bad For the present purpose, the recipient is an individual or a household. A case describes the qualities and circumstances of the recipient that do or are claimed to serve as grounds for a share in the distribution. The generality principle demands that the distribution should provide an equal share to each case. Also formulated as equal treatment, the principle requires treating like cases alike.

Formally, an equality can be expressed as a function relating a dependent variable (the share in the distribution) to one or more independent variables (the grounds, or reasons, for receiving the share). A function with one independent variable describes a simple, one with more than one a compound equality. The function may be linear (specifying an Aristotlean or proportionate equality) or non-linear (specifying a more or less than proportional equality).

Simple equalities typically express dependence either on doing or on being. “To each student who studies, a stipend” reserves the stipend to cases where the student does actually study. “To each student, a stipend” makes the latter dependent only on the former, i.e. the status of being a student. A perhaps less sharp instance of this alternative is the hourly paid worker whose wage depends on how many hours he works in the week, and the director on an annual salary who owes it to his status, his being a director (though his being one may in turn depend on things he has done or ii doing). The ultimate distinction is between recipients who share in the distribution on the ground that they act in certain ways (exert effort, use their talents, achieve a result) and recipients who owe their share to their status as human beings. The latter case can be seen as a limiting member of the class of non-linear functions where the share earned by an act increases less than proportionately to the act until in the limit the act fades into irrelevance and recipients are all left with the same share regardless of what, if anything, they do. One sometimes detects a propensity in social justice arguments to favour status over acts in the role of independent variable.

A compound equality is a dependent variable upon which several independent variables have each exerted some weight. They may be linear or non-linear and based on doing or being, depending on the nature of the case. For instance, the distribution of a payroll among the employees of an enterprise may depend, a.o. on a basic wage rate, hours worked, grade of skill, productivity, seniority, responsibility, size of family, etc. In general, regression analysis with selected variables will usually explain most of the distributive outcome. Any residual that remains unaccounted for can possibly be reduced by adding further independent variables until it is fully explained or, failing that, the residual can be ascribed to some chaotic element that characterizes less than perfectly ordered states of affairs. It should go without saying that when regression analysis to a greater or lesser extent explains a distribution as a compound equality, the critic can always dismiss some or indeed all but one of the explanatory variables as irrelevant or morally objectionable, and judge the distribution an unjust inequality. There is no answer to such criticism at the level of a particular distribution; anyone must be free to have opinions about them, but they cannot claim precedence over rival opinions.

This suggests that distributional outcomes are seldom, if ever, predominantly chaotic, but nearly always thinly hide some compound equality The particular equality that regression analysis reveals may or may not please everyone equally. However, it does not violate social justice if we are to take it that the latter is breached only by inequality. Note, however, that if this position was taken, there would be little or nothing left of social justice except a series of judgments about which of two or more alternative equalities is to be preferred. For such judgments to represent a valid claim to the moral high ground, there should have to be some rule for ordering rival judgments into a hierarchy so as to tell which should prevail. No such rule is in evidence.

Let us now revert to generality and the command “treat like cases alike” that the principle implies. Each case is different from every other case in at least one respect, for otherwise it would not be a separate case. Stated rigorously, the generality principle is therefore nonsensical, for in application it reduces to “treat each case like itself”. To rescue generality, every case should have to be made like every other. Rawls’s “veil of ignorance” may be seen as a contrivance that achieves this by hypothetically getting every recipient of the to-be-agreed on distribution to behave as if he were the same as every other Playing with such a contrivance has proved to be a mental exercise that attracted many students, but it can do nothing to help lift social justice doctrine to the moral high ground.

Some less stringent statement of the generality principle may perhaps be admitted. “Like cases” may be read, not sameness in every respect, but equal dependence of each case on the same independent variable, so that simple equality prevails if they are treated alike. For instance, we would then say that if every worker is paid the same hourly wage, they are being treated alike. It springs immediately to mind, though, that equality of the hourly wage obliterates several alternative equalities, e.g. “to each, the same weekly pay” (regardless of how many hours he worked), or “to each, according to his output”, etc.

What this shows is that social justice doctrine is in general unable to make the basic choice which it is widely supposed to be called upon to make, namely the choice between equality and inequality. That choice is in general simply not available. If it exists anywhere, it is confined to distributions that are predominantly chaotic, governed by no discernible rhyme or reason. What social justice can generally achieve is a choice of one equality at the cost of obliterating another, and potentially a plethora of other simple and compound equalities.

In sum, if we conceded that the generality principle does validate the moral superiority of equality over inequality, we should still find it of little help for bolstering up social justice doctrine for the simple reason that few distributions are chaotic, i.e. truly unequal. In the next section, I am attempting to demonstrate that even the initial premises of generality should not be conceded and it is arbitrary to demand that it should be.

It seems already clear enough, though, that social justice doctrine must renounce most of its untenable or at least weak theoretical pretensions if it is to operate at all. A few equalities must be selected as relevant to it, while any attempt to make it compatible with a generalized form of equality must be abandoned.

Redistributive policies practiced and demanded, academic opinion and everyday parlance seem to converge on three equalities as chiefly relevant to popular notions of social justice: income- or wealth-equality, consumption-equality and utility-equality. “Equal respect” and the even more elusive “equal rights” may be remembered as also-rans.

Academic discussion of social justice tends usually to mean income-equality when postulating equality. Income-equality does not necessarily require the levelling of pre-tax incomes, for it can just as well be achieved at the post-tax level and focusing on the latter has the advantage that while attempts to equalize pre-tax incomes would be an overt violation of property and the freedom of contract, leaving them ostensibly intact and free to determine pre-tax distribution and then equalizing the latter by fiscal means has the appearance of a less brutal intervention, albeit having the same effect.

Consumption-equality requires that regardless of their income, certain categories of persons should each be able to consume (as in health care) or be made to consume (as in compulsory schooling) the same quantity of certain goods.

Utility-equality gains its importance from two separate notions. One is that the utilities enjoyed by different persons are commensurate quantities and can therefore be compared in terms of some objective measure. The other is that as income rises, its utility rises less than proportionately, so that equalizing incomes increases the sum of utility enjoyed by the recipients, though this may not ensure that each gets the same share in the total Utility-equality can take eccentric forms, such as talk of the blind cripple needing many times the income of the millionaire to be no worse off, though these suggestions are hardly meant seriously. A far more substantial use of utility-equality is the demand, often satisfied, that particularly deserving social groups should receive privileged treatment, subventions or tax concessions even if this involves violation of income-equality. It looks a safe conjecture that if income-equality could ever be largely achieved, the pursuit of utility-equality in the latter form would continually upset it. The reverse conjecture is only a little less plausible: if utility-equality came to predominate over the distribution of incomes, social justice would call for its reversal by the pursuit of income-equality.

3. The Putative Moral Defect Of Inequality.

Pending some conclusive reason to the contrary, treating it as self-evident that equality is intrinsically good and inequality intrinsically bad is gratuitous. Astonishingly enough, the bare assertion is readily accepted and confidently echoed in the literature on social justice and in political discourse on the subject. The scene is reminiscent of the parable about the Emperor’s new clothes. Everybody praises them mainly because they seem to please everybody else around, and it occurs to nobody to ask what exactly is so pleasing about them. Few are courageous and candid enough to call out aloud that the Emperor has no clothes.

Justice has “To each, his own” as its device; social justice’s device is “To each, the same”. The former is clearly the conclusion of a string of perhaps lengthy and complex findings about what in fact belongs or is due to each. It presupposes knowledge, in principle if not in factual detail, about the property of each, the freedoms he can exercise without hindrance and the contracts that define the obligations each owes to others. Without specification of these facts, the device “To each, his own” would be patently empty, fitting any content one may fancy to attach to it. There is no such lack of specification implied in “To each, the same”. It is not empty without one. It postulates quite adequately that what is distributed must be distributed equally. (Whether this can be done while still leaving other equalities intact is not considered.)

Moreover, it states this as if it were obvious, admitting no question why this should be so. Proceeding in this manner is no doubt an effective gambit, as witness the popularity and academic respectability the idea of social justice enjoys. Yet, it provides no defence against the devastating, albeit rarely voiced, finding that the Emperor has no clothes.

For the claim to the moral high ground to be capable of being seriously grappled with, it needs to say why inequality is wrong and equality right. There are a number of arguments seeking to establish this, and they can be classified in a number of ways.

One such class consists of loose strands of thought derived from varying interpretations of Christian teaching, very influential in the Middle Ages and then again from the late 19th century onward. The post-Enlightenment era brought the thesis that equality had instrumental value (and inequality disvalue), because an equal distribution of happiness-bearing goods maximised the happiness they brought. Belief in this thesis stubbornly persists in all but the more sophisticated strata of opinion. In a less naive variant of such ideas, a person would prefer equal to unequal distributions if he were just as probable to have one particular future place in society as any other There is no reason to imagine that a person’s likely future place is altogether unknown to him. It would be highly unusual if it were. To obtain equiprobability of one’s future place, recourse is had to morality in a roundabout way. It induces people to hide from themselves the personal qualities and endowments that would tell them something about their probable future place in society. Hence equiprobability is achieved. Morality has the instrumental value of leading people to choose the distribution of income that would maximise their expected utility (“primary goods”) if they really had no idea what their future place in society was likely to be.

Such a theory has the merit of not postulating that inequality is wrong per se. What is morally wrong is to have endowments and qualities, not because they would give rise to inequalities unless prevented from doing so, but because they are undeserved, “hence” morally arbitrary. The implication is that what is not specifically deserved is undeserved; a personal quality or endowment needs a justificatory reason to escape “moral arbitrariness”.

To claim that something is undeserved unless a good reason is speaking for it is no less arbitrary than to claim that something is deserved unless a good reason speaks against it. To claim that one is arbitrary and the other is not is itself arbitrary. Analogous reasoning can be applied to equality and inequality. There is no apparent high ground that would command equality a different treatment from inequality. Either both need a reason, or neither does. However, both are parts of states of affairs that may well be judged and treated differently on other grounds.


1. Qui S’Excuse, S’Accuse

Section I was meant to persuade the reader that the occupation of the moral high ground by equality was at best precarious, at worst illusory. Equating inequality with social injustice was an ingenious gambit that has borne fruit in popular opinion, but its blatantly tautological nature was easy to uncover. Condemning inequality as morally arbitrary, though an escape from the tautology involved in “inequality is unjust, therefore justice demands equality, therefore inequality is unjust”, is itself morally arbitrary, for the requirement that there must be a moral reason for inequality has precisely the same force as the one that there must be a moral reason for equality.

However, a broad stream of political thought from Locke to Nozick and most “libertarians”, is taking the claim of the advocates of social justice to the moral high ground at face value. It is putting up defences against the moral opprobrium cast upon ownership that is free to exclude the non-owner. By so excusing itself, as the saying goes, it accuses itself.

The most resounding of the clashes between “To each, his own” and “To each, the same” is over property. It is by putting up a defence for property that accusations against it are implicitly vindicated.

A solid basis for the accusation is offered by Locke’s two well-known provisos and particularly by the serious attention that, puzzlingly enough, it has received and is still receiving. The first proviso requires that in order legitimately to appropriate unowned property, a person must “mix his labour” with it. Though it turns out that “mixing” need not involve anything very onerous, – picking a fruit from the tree is legitimate appropriation of the fruit – this proviso implicitly concedes the point that for the unowned asset to become owned, it does not suffice for the first owner to be the first to claim it. “Finders keepers” is not good enough, the finder must also “mix his labour” with his find. The reason seems to be that everything, including the find, has been given by God to mankind, hence nothing is really unowned. By appropriating an asset, the first owner is withdrawing it from the rest of mankind, and he must redeem this offence by investing his labour in it. Why doing this should have a redeeming effect upon the offence is not clear.

That it does not indemnify the rest of mankind nor buy its forgiveness for the offence, transpires from Locke’s second proviso. Appropriating the asset is legitimate “if enough and as good is left for others”, i.e. if mankind suffers no opportunity loss by virtue of some of its common heritage being taken into individual ownership. If the first proviso had real effect, the second proviso would be redundant, and vice versa. In fact, in a world where the finding cost of unowned assets is increasing as more unowned assets are appropriated, or where their quantity is finite, or both (which is the likely contingency), fulfilling the second proviso becomes impossible as appropriation continues, and by backward induction it is impossible from the very beginning. The Lockean apology of appropriation not only fails altogether, but leaves on property the stain of injustice and on its owner the assumption of guilt.

Pains have since been taken to extricate ownership from the absurd situation produced by its defence turning into self-accusation. It has been said, reasonably enough, that the transfer of all known assets from the common ownership of mankind into somebody’s ownership has caused a vast expansion of wealth which largely compensates all for whom “enough and as good” was not left. However, this is neither here nor there, for unsolicited compensation may well not buy absolution. Far more importantly, the very suggestion of compensation concedes that there is an offence, a harm, a violation of the right of others, to be compensated for. The guilt of the owner and the illegitimacy of property are accepted as the starting point.

A somewhat different line of the sort of defence that turns into self-accusation by the very assumption that a defence is needed, hinges on the curious notion of self-ownership. Assets are created by the effort of the self and since the self owns itself, it must be acknowledged as owning the assets as well. It may be pertinently objected that this argument misunderstands property, for though a person may own another person as his slave, nobody can own himself or herself, if only because it would be nonsense to talk of its “transference by consent” to another self. Such conceptual objections, however, are as nothing to the main point I seek to make, namely that like compensation due to the propertyless, self-ownership is meant to defend property and in doing so, it admits that there is a case to be answered. In fact, no case has been made.

2. Presumptions Favouring The Status Quo

The apologetic stance in defence of property that descends from Locke, but that might well have arisen here and there without his maladroit initiative, is not only a tactical error of monumental importance. It also runs counter to the logical structure of validating statements about what is the case.

Consider the conduct of the defence. It selects a possible accusation, say that a person who, in keeping with the convention of finders keepers, takes unowned property into his ownership, is depriving all others of the chance of finding and keeping it. All must have equal opportunity to appropriate the property in question, hence either nobody must have it or all must have it (“to each, the same”). Having formulated the charge, it proceeds to falsify it by showing that equal opportunity for each to find the same (“enough and as good”) is in any strict sense materially impossible. It then conjures up the alternative charge namely that the equality of opportunity requirement relates not to the equal chance of finding a given asset or even property in general, but to the equal chance of attaining material wellbeing, If some have property and others do not, their chances are not equal. Though this charge cannot in a proper sense be falsified, it can be disarmed by pointing out that the capitalist system in which only some have property has proved itself capable of generating far greater material wellbeing than any that has yet been tried, notably the one where none may own productive property. Since equal opportunity to have property is merely instrumental to equal opportunity to wellbeing, and unequal property produces greater wellbeing, it produces greater opportunity for each to attain wellbeing than would the same property distributed equally for all or allowed to none. The defence then takes account of the more blunt charge that equality and wellbeing are not commensurate (at least, it is highly contestable that they are) and cannot be traded off against one another. Against this, the defence has recourse to the no less blunt fact that the respect for property is one of the basic conventions of justice to which men have since time immemorial adhered either spontaneously or for fear of being sanctioned by those who so adhered.

So it may go on and on. The play of conjuring up hypothetical accusations and rebutting them one by one may thus be spun out indefinitely, its length limited only by imagination and patience.

Instead of the institution of property, it may be more pertinent to consider a representative asset held by an owner. If he wishes to defend his title before knowing whether it is disputed and if so, on what grounds, he must think of conceivable hypothetical grounds and falsify each. The possibility of accomplishing this depends on the number of possible grounds or on the number the owner can think of before his imagination is exhausted, whichever is larger. Whichever of the two is larger, the number is unknown. It can at best be an object of conjecture. Put formally, it is a probability distribution where the number of grounds being indefinitely large has a non-zero probability. If so, it is not only practically, but also logically impossible to falsify the charge that the owner does not have good title to his property. This is obvious, since as each potential charge is falsified, there is always some probability of an additional one being thought of.

This, the reader will have noticed, is the same reasoning that leads to the presumption of freedom, which maintains that since all conceivable objections to a course of action can never be falsified, the claim that the course of action is objectionable can only be validated by its challengers verifying at least one particular objection. Pending this, there is a presumption that the action is free. Likewise, pending verification that the owner’s title to the property is defective, it is presumed to be good. In sum, by virtue of the asymmetry between falsification and verification as ways of validating a statement, a ground for invalidity of a title cannot be falsified, but it can be verified.

Between the binary alternatives “the title is good” and “the title is not good” there is a presumption in favour of one. Which way the presumption leans depends on what is actually the case, namely on the status quo. If it is the case that nobody has good title, the proposition that somebody might establish one for himself cannot be falsified. There is a presumption that such claims are not valid, and this presumption prevails until someone verifies the contrary by a valid argument showing that he does have good title. Failing such verification, the presumption that no one has good title is sustained.

It needs hardly be spelt out that while this is logically acceptable as long as ascertainable facts are held to be decisive, it ceases to be so in a normative approach. If none has good title because “to each the same” can only be realised if none has any, empirical reasoning is ruled out at the outset. It may then be asked how the proposed but far from established norm “To each the same” can confer authority for such ruling-out.

3. Camping On The High Ground

“To each his own” is high ground in that it refers to what is rather than to opinions, such as the social justice doctrine, that seek to establish what ought to be. This stance does not imply any claim that the status quo is intrinsically good let alone more desirable than any feasible alternative. It does imply, though, that non-unanimous, adversarial demands to reshape the status quo can only be entertained if they redress an injustice manifested in a breach of the rule system on which the status quo is based, and not to redress a state of affairs deemed to be an injustice in terms of some doctrine that rejects this rule system. The rule system of the status quo protects property by first appropriation and “transference by consent”, and agreement under the freedom of contract. This stance does not recognise injustices that are not also the consequences of acts that are breaches of this rule system. In the face of demands for social justice, the property status quo has no case to answer. By answering, let alone anticipating them, it is abandoning the high ground.


The present section has no general validity. It is confined to the case where rules, including the rules of property and contract, are set by a rule-making rule (constitution) under which alternatives are chosen by majority vote within the institutions commonly known as democratic and where the rule-making rule can itself be changed, albeit gradually and in roundabout ways. Under a rule-making rule tolerated by a majority, majority rule will tend to prevail. In that case, alternative voting coalitions attract voting members by the prospect of alternative schemes of redistributing income or wealth. (Redistribution of other transferable goods, such as privileges, offices or honours, will not be separately considered). Other things equal, voters join coalitions whose redistributive programme offers them the greatest gain or the smallest loss. Rich-to-poor redistribution can always trump poor-to-rich redistribution.

1. The Bribe

Under the democratic system sketched above, there is a permanent incentive to dismantle the part of the ancient rule system that protects the title of owners to their property and the contractual (or customary) incomes arising from it. Though formal proof may be unfeasible, it is plausible to take it that as long as wealth or income are unequally distributed, a majority coalition that includes the poor can increase its own average by making the distribution more equal, while if it is by some fluke or by earlier redistributive efforts actually equal, a majority coalition can gain by making it unequal at the expense of the minority.

The result would resemble a repeated three-person distribution game where in each round of the game two of the poorer players would coalesce to dispossess the richer player, while if all three were equally rich or equally poor, two would coalesce to make themselves richer at the expense of the third. The roles of rich and poor would of course alternate in each round if the game were a pure zero-sum distribution game, i.e. excluding production.

This neat mechanism, however, works less neatly than its “design” would seem to predict. A number of reasons, all subsumed under “other things” not being equal, contribute to less neat outcomes. One is the vicissitudes of campaign finance the organizers need to meet the cost of recruiting their voting coalition. Another is due to the organizers being associated not only with a particular redistributive project, but also with side issues that are independent of the project but get bundled up with it in the minds of the electorate. Nationalism, religion, softness toward young delinquents, homosexuality, nuclear energy, the work ethic are such issues that may move the electorate to vote against a redistributive project that would maximise its gain, and form a winning coalition in favour of lesser or no gain. The likely upshot is that redistribution will still take place over time, but less inexorably and radically than the pure mechanism of majority rule might lead one to expect.

There is an endemic fear among the better-off and an endemic hope among some of the badly off that if redistribution is not brisk and purposeful enough to make egalitarian goals seem within reach, a revolutionary situation will be engendered and social justice will be fought for on the barricades. There is no evidence of any kind to justify this fear (or hope); if anything, historical experience seems to show that revolutionary situations are produced by precisely the opposite circumstances. It is when the defences of the status quo were crumbling and its defenders looked like conceding the high ground that revolutions tended to occur, but for no clear reason the lessons of history to this effect have never been learned.

Thus it is the almost uncontested received wisdom that social democracy is really a more or less consciously adopted device to forestall the threat of revolutionary upheavals. The electorate in a democracy would not stand for a system where justice was the justice of property and contract, undiluted by concessions to popularly more favoured alternative equalities. Social democracy recognizes that the undiluted system of secure title and free exchange produces wealth and probably more of it than any other, but it is hoping to have it both ways by diluting it with repeated and fairly generous ad hoc concessions to what it loosely calls social justice. The result remains a matter of some controversy.

While most of this is commonplace, it also contains a grain of genuine interest. This interesting grain is the contention that any “free enterprise” advocate in his senses must approve of social democracy, because without it, the system in which free enterprise thrives would have long been overthrown. If redistribution is the indispensable bribe the electorate must have to let the capitalist system survive then it is in the vital interest of capitalism to underwrite redistribution rather than oppose it. Discussing the moral basis of “to each the same” and the logico-epistemological foundation of “to each his own” becomes at best a pastime of no consequences, at worst a troublesome noise of discord.

3.To Each The Same – Up To A Point

There could, then, be a state of general opinion which had little interest in principles, nor in how to derive from some or other of them a concept of justice None would insist on equality of this or that, but all would be content with successive steps toward one or another simple equality, without caring too much about the violence this would do to some compound equalities.. None would hold out for the inviolability of property and the freedom of contract, but all would agree that moderate wealth or inheritance taxes, a progressive income tax and some regulatory micro-management are not too harsh breaches of them.

The Nirvana established by such a social democratic truce, however is unstable. It may have largely resolved the rich-to-poor conflict that would otherwise persist over the demand for income-equality and the resistance to it. But it does not do away with claims for other equalities, most particularly for consumption-equality. The rise of the welfare state is, in fact, above all a response to demands for consumption-equality in such areas as compulsory social insurance, the extension and levelling of public education, publicly provided health care and a host of minor public goods. Providing these welfare entitlements is not primarily, or perhaps not at all, a matter of rich-to-poor redistribution. It is rather a contribution of all income groups to provide a particular public good targeted to benefit mainly one of these groups at a time; parents of school-age children, old people, litigants needing legal aid, sick people, opera-lovers, victims of natural disasters and all the other groups who receive direct transfers. I have named this kind of redistribution “churning”, for it does not flow in a single defined direction and it is seldom clear who derives a net benefit from it and who is a net loser. It is characteristic of it that only a small part of total transfers is in the form of cash. Most benefits are given in kind, which reflects the paternalistic convictions of the welfare providers and the acquiescence of the recipients who are unaware of the aggregate welfare loss they suffer from having to take welfare in kind rather than in cash.

Herein lies one of the probable causes of why welfare states are unstable, chronically drifting into financial imbalance, without their relative generosity earning them the satisfaction of their electorate. Each group within the latter has a permanent incentive to fight for greater benefits, safe in the knowledge that the excess cost would be mostly borne by other groups, while if it failed so to fight, it would become the passive victim of the other groups which do fight for their own pressing claims. Objectively, “churning” where horizontal redistribution predominates, ought to be generating as much antagonism between the young and the old, the sick and the healthy, the parents and the childless as rich-to-poor vertical redistribution has traditionally done, though it is not evident that it really does.

A good way of understanding the state of play between two doctrines of what each should get, and the doctrine-less but no less unhappy compromise embodied in our contemporary welfare state, is to reflect on the equally doctrine-less alternative first sketched by Milton Friedman that has since blossomed out into a more ambitious flower of unrestrained fantasy academic greenhouses but never took hold in political practice.

For Friedman, the point of redistribution was not to achieve more equality. He was convinced that the capitalist system was a natural equaliser and when he launched his proposal, this looked like being the case. For him, the object of redistribution was to alleviate poverty which, he admitted with some regret, may require compulsion. He thought, however, that the incipient welfare state with its chaotic subventions and grants was doing it with singular inefficiency. He estimated that bringing the poorest 20 per cent of U.S. households up to the bottom level of the remaining 80 per cent by giving them cash transfers – what he called a “negative income tax” – would cost no more than half the actual total of all the anti-poverty expenditures. He did not think 20 per cent was necessarily the right proportion. It was for the democratic political process to determine how much it should be. He saw the danger that a majority could then systematically exploit the minority, but hoping for the best he left it at that.

The “negative income tax” is a return from consumption-equality to income-equality, or more precisely to income-equality up to a point. It is the unwitting father of the more general proposal of a “universal basic income” that has since been widely canvassed among academic advocates of social justice. Their proposal does not specifically target poverty and does not commit to what income should be adopted as “basic”. Evidently, if all incomes above the mean were taken away and distributed to make up any shortfall below the mean, the mean would become the universal basic income and complete income-equality would be achieved, at least on paper. Redistribution “up to a point” is mild or radical depending on the “point” up to which it is carried. That point is obviously mobile, though it is easier to envisage it being upwardly than downwardly mobile.

Interestingly, there seems to be an open breach between the overtones about poverty that used to accompany the demands for social justice – namely that poverty is a product of unfairness of the system and of ill luck – and the universal basic income proposal which admits elective poverty. Choosing to enjoy basic income while spending one’s days on the beach is as good a ground for getting it as honest, boring toil.


This essay identifies social justice as an attempt to provide moral justification for transforming unequal into equal distributions. The claim that morality speaks for equality and against inequality is based on the Kantian generality principle, which is shown to be nonsense if taken literally, and goes only a little way if interpreted loosely. Failing that principle, either both equality and inequality require a reason, or neither does. Treating equality as an instrumental rather than a final value, as done by Rawls, is no more successful if only because of the arbitrariness of holding that what is not specifically deserved is undeserved.

Much of the doctrinal incoherences of social justice stem from a poor understanding of the concept of equality. Compound equalities that explain distributions are ignored or dismissed, and interpreted as inequalities. Lacking a clear general rule, social justice is reduced to selecting certain putative inequalities as targets for redress by redistribution.

While social justice doctrine claims the moral high ground, the opposite high ground is held by the conventional rule system of justice with freedoms of property and contract. Since challenges to title cannot logically be falsified, there is a presumption in favour of the property status quo. The reasoning is the same as the one leading to the presumption of freedom.

The redistributive compromise of social democracy rests on no doctrine, but rather on the supposition that without it the whole social order would be rejected. Social democratic welfare states redistribute not so much vertically from rich to poor, but rather horizontally between groups interested in particular kinds of welfare entitlements. This “churning” tends to be disorderly and expensive in terms of lost welfare. Milton Friedman’s proposal of a negative income tax was offered as cleaner and cheaper method of alleviating poverty, with no suggestion that social justice demands it. Later, it has been developed into an ambitious doctrinal move for a universal basic income for all that may imply partial or total income-equality and that individuals would get as of right. No fresh argument is advanced that morality would require the adoption of such a scheme. One may perhaps hazard the prophecy that appeals to morality will be playing a progressively smaller role in the advocacy of social justice, with other types of arguments for redistribution taking up the slack.