4. The Philosophical Justifications Continued: Structures of Distribution

It was determined in the previous essay that the ultimate goal of liberalism on a philosophical level should be to establish equal freedom from domination. But that state of freedom, while desirable in and of itself, can be of no use in practical terms if it is unable to be utilised. As we said, then, the practical expression of our freedom from domination consists in the capacity to participate in society equally to others. While this was a mere philosophical construct in the previous essay, this one will begin to make the descent from the high-level conceptual thinking we have hitherto engaged towards the terra firma of reality. How, we must ask ourselves, can we ensure the equal capacity to participate in society, and thus, the equal freedom from domination we have established as our primary liberal goal? While perhaps not sufficient on its own to constitute this equal freedom, it is clear that economic factors must play a major role in bringing it about. Man is not a self-sufficient being. He requires resources in order to survive, and in order to prosper. Without these resources, he simply will die, or, short of this, exist in such a state of penury and precariousness that the obtaining of resources will be his sole preoccupation. In such a position, he cannot be said to have the equal capacity to participate in society, and thus he cannot be said to possess equal freedom from domination, compared to someone with the requisite amount of resource. In this way, then, the distribution of resource – or, more simply, economic distribution – must be an important and fundamental part of our philosophical liberalism. In short, in order to begin to derive a framework for practically applying our liberal idea, we must provide an account for what distributive principles and structures are entailed by a commitment to equal freedom from domination.

Recall our earlier discussion of the moral equality of persons, and its entailment that arbitrary features about a person should not be the grounds for advantage or disadvantage being conferred upon them by the state. It was determined there that discrimination on the grounds of race is morally wrong for this reason; similarly, that conferring advantage onto children born into rich families would be a violation of this principle of respect for the moral equality of persons. But other, less intuitive factors are also arbitrary. Importantly, for discussing the distributional structures entailed by liberal equality of freedom from domination, it must be conceded that our talents are arbitrarily distributed. It is simple fact that some are born with greater intellectual talent than others, or that some are born better at playing the flute, or painting pictures. And, while these skills are all teachable and learnable to a degree, we can say that inherent “talent” is an ability to pick up these skills more quickly and develop them more proficiently than others. It is clear, for myriad biological and genetic reasons, that these talents are distributed arbitrarily. It would be absurd, for example, to say that a child “deserves” to be intelligent – what factor about them would give rise to that deservingness? The premise of the arbitrariness of natural talent, then, is perhaps an obvious one to comprehend, but what that premise entails is often more broadly resisted. This is because, under the principle of respect for the moral equality of persons, arbitrary features about a person should not be rewarded or punished by the structures of the state. So, just as someone should not be rewarded or punished for skin colour or their family background, equally, it follows that they should not be rewarded or punished for their inherent intelligence or talent.

This conclusion is difficult to accept on an intuitive level for many people, because it goes against the apparently honourable principle of meritocracy. How is it right, they ask, that people should be said not to deserve the fruits of their labour? To found a system of redistribution on this principle is surely to deprive people of what they’ve earned? Indeed, a further complication arises when one considers that proclivity to work – so a strong work ethic, or its opposites, laziness and fecklessness – is also an arbitrary distribution. To redistribute from the hardworking to the lazy seems opposite to all good sense. Fortunately, however, this is not necessarily the case.

A digression to the main discussion is here called for, and we must set straight an issue of priorities in constructing our distributional system. We have already established as its aim the liberal goal of equal freedom from domination, and thus, the necessary equal capacity to participate in society required by it. But while a standard tactic of the anti-egalitarian, it would be misleading to suggest that this liberal principle entails the state-driven forced equality of all in all respects. In framing our target principle, we talk of equal freedom from domination. That is, we talk of freedom from the barrier of domination – and this is an important subtlety to note, because it draws us away from the absolute pursuit of equality for its own sake, involving the undesirable imposition of equality in all respects. Once an individual has reached a point at which they can be said to have equal freedom, and equal theoretical capacity to participate in society, our goal is fulfilled. The liberal thus supports the elevation of individuals to a point beyond which that barrier can be said to be removed, rather than pure equality, promoted through an ideological commitment to equality for its own sake. And, this means that liberals are committed to prioritising a distributional system where the poorest are pushed over that barrier, rather than a purely egalitarian system for its own sake. To express this more simply, the liberal’s primary goal should be to ensure that the poor are elevated to a point where their poverty doesn’t negatively affect their ability to participate in society. This is an essential idea because it can, in fact, conflict with the principle of pure egalitarianism. The egalitarian will want all things to be equal no matter what. The liberal, however, will be pragmatic, and will tolerate inequality if it allows the poorest to be liberated from the barrier of domination, and to emancipate them into that equal capacity to participate in society which forms the central goal of his ideology. It can be seen now how this digression factors into the main discussion, but I will elaborate on it explicitly.

We have seen that talent and lack of talent are arbitrary. The state should not give advantage to the talented, or punish the untalented through its structures, and, so, the state should not allow a distributional structure where the untalented are left worse off. However, such considerations of “advantage” on its own terms are of secondary concern to the liberal. The liberal’s core principle is equal freedom from domination. It has been shown that, in distributional terms, equal freedom from domination requires each individual to be above a certain threshold, after which point that freedom exists, and a person can freely participate in society. And so the liberal’s primary distributional goal is to ensure that the very poorest receive priority, and are elevated beyond that threshold. In this way, it is the liberal position that the talented should be able to use their arbitrarily given talents, and to benefit from them, as that benefit will encourage them to use and cultivate those talents. Such use and cultivation will of its own accord create more resource through the growth of the economy, and thus improve the lot of the poorest, pushing them closer to that threshold. But, it must nonetheless be conceded that excessive benefit to the talented must still be redistributed to the untalented, so as the state does not condone a system where the arbitrarily talented are advantaged beyond the point where that advantage can fruitfully improve the lot of the poorest.

This is perhaps the most complicated move of the philosophical basis for liberalism which was promised to be painted, and so it perhaps requires a restatement in clearer language. Talents are arbitrary, and so by rights, people shouldn’t get more for being talented. At the same time, though, the liberal most wants to get people above the threshold where they can participate in society meaningfully, in order to secure equal freedom. So, as a result of this priority, the liberal is happy for the state first to encourage the talented to use their talents, by allowing them some of the proceeds of it, secondly to harness those talents in order to grow the economy and suchlike, increasing the value of the existing share of the poorest, and then thirdly, because the talents are nonetheless still arbitrary, to devise a distributional system where the excessive benefits of the talent – the benefits which are above those needed to encourage the talented – are themselves redistributed to the poorest. In this way, an inequality in distribution is tolerated in order to ensure the fulfilment of the principle of equality of freedom from domination, which is the liberal’s supreme principle. Fundamentally, the liberal cares above all that everyone can participate in society. So long as they can, minor inequalities in distribution which help to assure this are tolerated.

In this way, we have derived a distributional system based on the foundational principle of the liberalism posited thus far. It focuses its efforts on removing the barrier of incapacity from the poorest, and tolerates and allows for the talented to keep some degree of financial reward in order to achieve this goal. In aiming to achieve equality of freedom rather than equality directly of resource, we can thus call this framework “liberal egalitarianism”. It is this that I suggest should form the basis of liberal economic policymaking. Having now laid the requisite philosophical groundwork and given an exposition of the conceptual case for liberalism, the next essays will turn to deriving a comprehensive practical framework from these philosophical ideals, and then, in turn, deriving policy and practical ideas for Britain as it stands from that practical framework.

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