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Ana Matan, Tue, 19 Nov 2002

> Who is more interested in distributive justice, the rich or the poor?


Some of you may know that the contemporary academic debate over distributive justice was spurred by and American political philosopher John Rawls and his book A Theory of Justice. In this book Rawls proposes that inequalities of income and wealth are justified only if they benefit the worst off group in society. Or to put it differently, inequality is justified because the poorest members of society (and everybody else) would be even worse off if the inequality did not exist.
What is really curious is that despite the enormous impact Rawls made on the academic community in the US, the general public was not acquainted with his ideas and they were not a matter of public debate. On the other hand, Rawls's ideas have been widely discussed in the Nordic countries (Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Island, Finland) in which there is much more equality and justice in distributive matters than in the US. ...Why is it so that in countries which have among the highest level of welfare provision in the world and not much inequality and where even fines for speeding rise progressively according to income, theories of distributive justice are much more popular than in a country (USA) in which there are huge inequalities in income and wealth?

Claus, Thu, 21 Nov 2002

> What do we mean when we say "distributive justice"?

At first: I do not think that ideas about Distributive Justice do depend on how wealthy a nation is: rather I expect historical processes to determine this. For example, I expect that in Norway the ideas of how the wealth should be shared are probably much older. But of course, it might be regarded as disappointing that a nation that is wealthy like the US seemingly has a greater inequality.

That brings me to an important question in this group: what do we mean when we say "distributive justice"? I know from economic courses that there are diagrams that analyze how equal wealth is shared among an amount of people. Probably several of you know the statements like "10 percent of the inhabitants own 60 percent of the income". This seems obviously not to be fair. But: what does "fair" (distributive justice) mean?

The justice based on performance and the justice based on needs


I know at least two meanings of "distributive justice"- therefore I find it easy to understand that in America another kind of idea of distributive justice is common. In German obviously the reality isn't that extreme and compromises between the two poles are most common. The reason for this is seemingly that a society has to cope with the losers of distribution and keep them quiet to prevent rumors. One could distinguish Leistungsgerechtigkeit” from Bedürfnisgerechtigkeit.

The first means that one gains as much as he is able to perform for others (someone skilled and ambitious will earn more). The second means that one should get what he needs, regardless of how powerful or skilled he is.

Nevertheless there are tendencies - and correct me if I am wrong, but I expect the US to be one of the countries in which the first idea mentioned above of distributive justice is strongly believed to be the right one by most of the people.

I expect the "rags to riches" American dream ("vom tellerwäscher zum millionär") to be one of the fundamentals of that idea: everybody could be the winner, and that is why everybody copes with not being the winner yet. (In addition this idea of distributive justice could be strengthen as far as I know partly by religious roots, as the Calvinism/Puritanism utters that being loved by God might show in "earthly wealth", too. (An idea of M.WEBER I think, I hope I do not insult anybody by this statement). This could help to justify inequality, too. Thus, it does not surprise me that in the US the majority is not thinking much about other kinds of distributive justice (although I have to admit that in Germany this topic isn’t discussed that often either).

Justification of our market-based system?


Although this idea of a strong kind of "Leistungsgerechtigkeit" is not "originally European" (funny- as the first Americans were Europeans), I am afraid it becomes part of our "European way" more and more - (probably strengthened by tendencies of globalization and tendencies of "individualization"). I consider the idea to be just too tempting: you do not have to care too much about others, as everybody gets what he deserves. And this seems great as long as you belong to the winners or at least you believe you might- and the losers keep being quiet.

And like you told me, this principle could even be seen as "good" as long as it proves that the "losers" are even better off that way (according to Rawls), which seems to be the unspoken justification of our market-based system in opposition to the socialistic one that was obviously put forward during the Documenta project.


I think this is a very interesting statement to discuss: can the system
be justified by the idea that any (A-thinkable/ B-realistic) alternative would be even worse for the "losers"? And what do we mean by "Distributive Justice"?

greetings, Claus

Ana Matan Fri, 29 Nov 2002

> Dear Klaus

You wrote:

“ What do we meanÝwhen we say "distributive justice"? One could distinguish Leistungsgerechtigkeit” from Bedürfnisgerechtigkeit. The first means that one gains as much as he is able to perform for others (someone skilled and ambitious will earn more). The second means that one should get what he needs, regardless of how powerful or skilled he is.”

From each according to... and to each according to ...

In one way both of these formulations could be fitted into a formula of a type "From each according to...and to each according to..." The first one I think is similar to that of the (already mentioned) American philosopher Robert Nozick which reads: "From each according to what he chooses to do, to each according to what he makes for himself..." And the second is more in line with some kind of a socialist slogan, which can be formulated as: "From each according to her abilities, to each according to her needs." Now, one can say that the question of distributive justice is a question of how to fill in the blanks of the above formula (From each...to each...). Of course the problem is that we do not agree about how those blanks should be filled.

My favorite author J. Rawls would say that we all share a concept of
justice, but disagree about conceptions of justice. He says: "Those who hold different conceptions of justice can...still agree that institutions are just when no arbitrary distinctions are made between persons in the assigning of basic rights and duties and when the rules determine a proper balance between competing claims to the advantages of social life." What we disagree on is "what are arbitrary distinctions?" and "what is a proper balance between competing claims?"

The principles on which all can agree?


As Klaus made it clear there are compromises between the claims made on the basis of property rights, talents, abilities, and claims on the basis of need. And some compromise between different principles is maybe the best we can do, but the idea of distributive justice, as Rawls put it, is to find a conception of justice on which all can agree and which will not be a result of a bargain struck between lets say the rich and the poor.ÝWe (the rich) agree to give you something of our wealth to you (the poor) and in exchange we ask that you do not rebel against us. This, thinks Rawls is not justice. His conception of justice requires that we agree on principles behind "a veil of ignorance" where we do not know whether we are rich or poor, talented or untalented, ambitious or not ambitious, high, middle or lower class, man or women, etc...


The principles of justice are those that can be agreed on in such "original position" of equality. And he thinks that all can agree on the principles I have already mentioned in one of my previous letters:


1. Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for others


2. Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both


(a) to the greatest expected benefit of the least advantaged


(b) attached to offices and positions open to all under condition of fair equality of opportunity


The alternative?


But Rawls' conception of justice is only one among many, and you do not have to accept it or think it is "truly" just. You may have a different conception. I see our task as carrying on a discussion about these different conceptions of distributive justice that we may have. You are right when you say that Rawls' conception can be seen as a justification of our market-based system in opposition to the socialistic one that was obviously put forward during the Documenta project.


And you are also right that part of its justification in its proposition
that any (A-thinkable/ B-realistic) alternative would be even worse for the "losers"?

So one question asked in a popular way may be: "Do we care more about equality and are prepared to accept that all should live of a loaf of bread and glass of water or we care more about what people eat so we accept that it is OK for some to eat champagne and caviar in order for others to have beans and sausages along with the bread?" (Provided that there is a mechanism by which the champagne and caviar for some brings beans and sausages to others).

This was all to say that our question should more precisely be: What conception of distributive justice do we accept as "truly" just? Or, what
distribution of social advantages do we accept as just? And not what is distributive justice?