Beyond Justice by Agnes Heller (1987)

Distributive Justice (excerpt)

All human endowments must be equally recognized. The development of certain endowments is a need. One must recognize all human needs, and all equally. Under the condition of relative scarcity, not all these needs can be satisfied – at least, not simultaneously. [34] However, not all needs awaiting satisfaction are concomitant with the development of our endowments. In connection with this I wish to make the following theoretical proposal: realizing the universal idea of ‘equal life chances for all’ does not presuppose either the satisfaction of all human needs or the distribution of an equal share of the available material resources to everyone. What it does presuppose is the satisfaction of all needs for the cultivation of our endowments, whatever these endowments may be, unless the satisfaction of an endowment as a need implies the use of others as mere means.

The postulate ‘satisfaction of all needs for the cultivation of our endowments, whatever these endowments are’ (with the above proviso) sounds familiar. The suspicion may arise that I have only suggested another formula for an old demand, that of fair and equal opportunity for all, which is only one possible interpretation of the ‘triad’ model. The formula can mean that everyone gets the same amount of ‘manna’ at the outset (Ackermann’s simile) and subsequently makes the best or worst of it, or that each individual atom departs from the same point, some finishing well, others not. It can even imply that the poor runners or the unlucky investors of the manna may be compensated later with some ‘welfare sugar’. Yet, irrespective of whether we like or dislike the ‘triad’ model, it is obvious that what is called fair and equal opportunity facilitates the development of certain endowments into talents and impedes the development of others. Endowments must be known in order to be developed, and, where there is only one way of life, certain endowments which may have been fully developed remain infertile, while less promising or even inferior endowments are developed. Only if different ways of life and different social patterns coexist, only if a person is free to change a way of life to find more adequate values and means of unfolding his or her endowments into talents, can the idea of ‘equal life chances for all’ be actualized. I subscribe emphatically to the conception of Nozick in this respect: the utopia worth pursuit is the realization of all utopias, not just of one.

Still, though one may dwell in such a utopia, it may not be true that an equal ‘start’ will lead to the satisfaction of all needs for the cultivation of one’s endowments, or that an equal distribution of ,manna’ will ensure this. I return to the problem discussed earlier: the promotion of certain endowments requires greater social spending than does that of others, and society must spend precisely the amount necessary for promoting a person’s talents. In other words, this expenditure must be unequal.

Having in mind the actualization of the ultimate value of ‘equal life chances for all’, I reverse the qualification signs between ‘start’ (or ‘opportunity') and ‘end state’. In the usual ‘triad’ model we have initial equality (equal start, equal distribution of manna, equality in resources, and the like), after which competition begins; and the end state involves achieving the proper (or permitted) level of inequality of incomes and wealth.

My model would involve initial inequality in that everyone receives what is necessary for the development of his or her abilities into talents and the practising of these talents. As endowments are unique, this is a principle of inequality. But I see no reason for anyone to get a higher income as a result of this. This is especially so considering that I believe all talents to be equally precious, and that no particular one of them contributes more to the good life of all than the others. However, while stating these preferences I do not exclude the idea of the ‘triad’ model from the Utopia (the realization of all utopias) – whoever likes this model best may embrace it.

An ironical rejoinder is almost inevitable here. If the ‘triad’ model is open to choice, no one will be foolish enough not to run the race that has the highest stake: a bigger salary. This is the prime article of faith with all liberal theories of distributive justice. The idealized image of the ‘triad’ model is presented as the form of life every human being would subscribe to, if rational choice were not inhibited by vested interest or prejudice. The ‘original position’ under the ‘veil of ignorance’ is only an elegant and witty presentation of a common view. Distributive equality is tantamount to equality of incomes, whereas distributive inequality is tantamount to differentiation of incomes (restricted by welfare) and nothing else. The ‘triad’ model is taken for granted because certain structures of needs are taken for granted. And, if the structure of needs enhanced by the way of life of the ‘triad’ is taken for granted, then, of course, a streamlined version of the original model seems to be the only and ultimate choice of all. If, however, one posits different need structures, among them structures which are enhanced by, while being constitutive of, social models other than that of the ‘triad, , then we must assume that at least some people will opt out of the ,triad’ model, streamlined as it may be, and will choose other ways of life; and that, the more different ways of life develop their own need structures, the more people may freely opt for the new ones. On these grounds I allow myself to believe that the distributive patterns which reverse the qualification signs between ‘start’ or ‘beginning’ and ‘result’ or ‘end’ in matters of equality or inequality could, and perhaps would, be chosen by many.

Let me again summarize what this alternative distributive model is all about.

1 Everyone receives from the social wealth what is necessary for developing his or her endowments into talents. This means unequal distribution at the start.

2 Everyone receives from the social wealth what is required for the use of his or her endowments (Inequality remains in force).

3 When someone decides to develop any other endowment, this person receives what is required to achieve this (Inequality remains in force at the second ‘start’, third ‘start’, etc.).

4 To meet needs other than those necessary for developing endowments, every person gets an equal share (be it in the form of distributed goods and services, income, dividends or whatever).

Distribution along these lines is by any measure either irrelevant or downright unjust in terms of the ‘triad’ model. It can only be just and fair in communities, in a particular form of communal life. There can be several different ways of life wherein such a distributive model works, but there must be one common denominator among all of them: the collective ownership of what was called by Marx ‘the means of production’. In other words, every member of the community must be a co-proprietor of the sources of social wealth of that community. Co-proprietorship entails an equal and genuine right of every community member to dispose of the social wealth created by all. The kibbutz lifestyle, or the way of life in commonly owned and managed factories encourages, or at least permits, the theoretical possibility of the implementation of the ,reversed’ form of distribution, equal or unequal. True enough, there are few kibbutzim, and few employee-owned and managed factories, or other forms of the business co-operative. Their paucity may be taken as an indication of a lack of social need for them . But this objection is very questionable, for two reasons. The need structure of today is not indicative of ‘need structures’ as such; the current needs will change, as they have always changed. Further, the distributive pattern I have described and the need structure adequate to it exists even today, and more generally than one is inclined to suppose – namely, in every democratically structured family. If the ideal image of the current democratic family structure is drawn, this will match exactly the pattern of my distributive model with ‘reversed qualification signs’. And we can be assured that there must exist some powerful needs which make this structure survive in the macrocosm of the ‘triad’ model, to which it bears very little resemblance. [35]

To void misunderstandings, I am not arguing that there is no need for the distributive model of the ‘triad’, or that this need is ‘false’. I am contesting the stance that the streamlined version of the ‘triad’ model presents the only model people would rationally choose if they were presented with a variety of ways of life, and the accompanying view that the suggested pattern of distribution in terms of the ‘triad’ model is the only just distribution possible or imaginable. I also contest the view that the idea of ‘equal life chances for all’ can be realized if a single way of life is posited within the model. Only if all endowments have a chance to be developed into talents, and equally so, can we get closer to the realization of this universal idea.

Those taking it for granted that everyone would choose initial equality in the race for the biggest stake may be puzzled to realize how easy it is to accept the ‘reversed’ model of distribution in respect of collective ownership. Rosner comments, ‘Interesting enough, the kibbutz has succeeded in the realm of economic equality and common ownership far more successfully and homogeneously than in other areas, and fewer threats exist to its economic structure than to other conditions of participatory democracy.’ 36 Since I am only dealing with the problem of ‘distributive justice’ here, I cannot formulate the political and other kinds of constraints that may arise within purely communal models. At this point it appears sufficient to stress that a plurality of ways of life, and the inalienable right of everyone at any time to quit one way of life and join another, can counterbalance such constraints.

It may seem that, in suggesting an alternative model of ‘reversed’ distribution, I have left far behind all mental experiments with ,equal resources’, ‘Initial equal distribution of the manna’, and the like. This is not so. I have instead shifted the problem to another level.

Ackermann writes,

According to Nozick, so long as the first generation began from a just starting point at Time One, individual seniors may pick out particular juniors for special favour – by gift, inheritance, or otherwise. The fact that a rich junior can trace his title through a series of voluntary actions to an initially just Time One discharges him – so far as Nozick is concerned from any claim of injustice made by his second-generation contemporaries. In principle, all eternity could be barred from all claims of injustice so long as a single generation had attained a just starting point for a single moment.... For it should be very obvious by now that the human race has never in its long history approached a single moment at which a single generation’s starting point was arranged in a way that approximated the liberal ideal of undominated equality. We are, in short, at generation zero ... the problem of inheritance is of such great theoretical importance that we must confront it head-on if we hope to grasp the shape of liberal ideals. [37]

Ackermann is undoubtedly correct. Nozick’s position of excluding all forms of redistribution as acts of injustice is indeed untenable from the position of our dominant sense of justice, but not for historical reasons. Of course, historically speaking there has never been ‘Time One’. However, if we were to establish Time One here and now, and if we also remain with the idea of nil redistribution, ,tomorrow’ would not differ from ‘ yesterday’ as far as distributive inequality is concerned. This problem was mentioned by Hume, and was well-known to socialists of the nineteenth century. To abolish the right of inheritance was always on their agenda. Whether right or wrong, it can still be stated in good faith that X acquired greater wealth than Y because X was more talented or more frugal than Y, but if X’s son inherits this wealth it is hard to deny that the son possesses something that has not resulted from bis own talents or merits. Therefore the son should not have this wealth. And what is true about individuals is equally true about communities and nations. The generation of fathers and mothers of community X (at Time One) has accumulated greater wealth than the generation of the fathers and mothers of community Y at the same Time One. Consequently, the juniors of community X inherit far more than the juniors of community Y. They can thus capitalize collectively on a wealth they have no merit in owning. Of course, we inherit far more than lust wealth, but I shall return to this matter very shortly.

I think that here we arrive at a point where theoretical suggestions might indeed clash with what I believe to be ‘human nature’. Humans are mortal and know they are, but they do not acquiesce in this awareness. We all feel the need to leave behind some trace of ourselves and we generally accomplish this by offering the fruits of our lives to the future generation. Only a very strong belief in the hereafter can outweigh this desire. In fact, some have the tremendous consciousness – and justifiably so – of bequeathing humankind the fruit of their efforts. But these people are few. Most of us wish to bequeath our legacy to people bound to us by direct ties, to people we know, to people whose future icy may fill us with anticipatory pleasure. The children who spring from our bodies, the youth of our community, our friends, carriers of ideas we have stood for – all are visible and perceivable continuations of ourselves, and as such they are our heirs by right, choice, and desire. Whether we make our bequests to others during our lifetime or leave our legacy behind us is of secondary importance. 38 It is also of secondary importance whether we draw up a will or whether we witness (as In a collectivity) how the future generation capitalizes on the fruits of our labour. No absolute Time One is possible (now or at any time) for any member of any society, only a very relative Time One for each and every concrete community at the moment of its establishment.

But, even if there is never an absolute Time One, and even if the inheritance of wealth cannot be completely eliminated – since, if it were, a basic human need would be doomed to eternal dissatisfaction – the continuous redistribution of wealth can still be attained. Moreover, this goal should be attained, because it is not contrary to but rather accords completely with our desire to bequeath the fruits of our lives to the future generation. Why this is so becomes clear if we look at forms of inheritance other than the strictly material.

We cannot favour the actualization of all utopias (all utopian ways of life), as Nozick did, and reject the principles of redistribution, as he did, without self-contradiction. Certain ways of life may be more able to cope with material exigencies, others less able. Certain communities may flourish, whereas others, owing to the efforts or shortcomings of previous generations or because of factors beyond human control (for instance, natural disasters), may perish. So what, one might ask? If people are free to quit one particular way of life and join another, those who prefer wealth will choose ways of life which ensure such wealth, and those preferring different ways of life will freely choose a reduced standard of living. These solutions may be viable, but only up to a certain point. Ways of life which do not ensure the development of the members’ endowments into talents because they cannot secure the reproduction of communal life, at least at the same level as was established at the outset, will stagnate, or even become extinct, but, regardless of the degree of this degeneration, the universal value of ‘equal life chances for all’ will not be actualized. The very fact that a way of life has been established and supported indicates the presence of men and women who seek to develop their endowments into talents within this way of life. If this way of life becomes extinct, the life chances of its adherents (or of those who might have chosen it) will diminish. If the ways of life in question stagnate. and cannot ensure their own reproduction on the level they had experienced at the beginning, the life chances of the members also decrease. Furthermore, the extinction of a particular way of life does not happen at Time One, but at Time Two, Time Three, and so on. However, from Time One onwards, generations who have lived a particular way of life have already passed on the fruits of their lives to future generations; not only material yields, but also values, behavioural patterns, emotional idiosyncrasies, forms of intercourse, modes of discourse, plays and dreams – everything we mean when we speak of ‘culture’. If a way of life becomes extinct, a culture is doomed, and all the dreams and labours of former generations pass into oblivion. This is why redistribution is not the opposite of inheritance, but in fact is necessary for the preservation of inheritance.

These days, people are ready to make sacrifices to save animal species from extinction, even going so far as to endanger the livelihood of the Eskimo to save the baby seal. If we unhesitatingly sacrifice part of our well-being to save an animal species from extinction, why do we experiment with patterns of distribution which. once accepted, would doom entire human ways of life to extinction? If all utopias should flourish, we must do our best to make them flourish. Of course. not everything should be redistributed. Redistribution should only go so far as to ensure that no way of life falls below the level of wealth and well-being at which it was originally established. A greater amount can be redistributed, and just how much more this should be always depends on the sense of justice of those doing the redistributing. But the situation where less is distributed should never occur.

To sum up: as far as redistribution among various forms of life is concerned, the arguments of modern liberal theory for ‘Initial equality in resources’ or ‘equal amounts of manna (at Time One)’ remain in force. As far as just distribution within each form of life is concerned, however, no general ‘pattern’ of justice can be invented or established. To each way of life must go its own distributive justice. What form of distribution is just or unjust is something that only members of each community – each way of life – are qualified to decide.[39] I am not qualified to do so. And neither are those who take the ‘triad’ model of a way of life for granted, and believe they have found the golden formula of lust distribution.

Liberal theorists offer their goods with the certification ‘envy-tested’. One can doubtless suggest and invent models of distribution which do not actively promote envy. Still, no model can be ‘envy-tested’. Envy is an irrational feeling. Patterns of distribution are rational constructs. People do not usually envy others because they have reasons to be envious. Men with superior talents in a particular field can envy others with inferior talents in the same field. People can envy others for things (goods, propensities, and the like) they do not even want. ‘Envy-testing’ patterns of distribution is a process tantamount to ‘Jealousy-testing’ patterns of sexual relations or ‘vanity-testing’ reviews written on scholarly books. To restrain envy or to check our impulses of envy is a moral matter and a moral task, and no quantity of sophisticated patterns of distribution can substitute for the ethical ‘atmosphere’ indispensable to the ‘good life’. Distributive justice is but an aspect of the ethico-political concept of justice.