Greg Mankiw has an essay on economic morality that essentially outlines a Just Deserts Theory of morality. Under this conception there is nothing wrong with people getting fabulously wealthy, its only bad when people cheat their way to the top. Greg also brings up an argument that I used to be attached to, that charity is a public good – no one wants to see poor people but we would all prefer that someone else do something about it – and as a public good is rightfully financed by government spending.

I’ve moved away from this view. Greg is right that it reflects common intuition. The problem is that this intuition does not survive introspection. It works so long as you don’t think too much about it. As you think more and more you are forced either into something like a consequentialist camp, that is to say that it matters who ends up with what. Or, you are forced into miniarchist camp. That is, that there should be almost no government at all. It’s hard to keep the idea that there should be some public goods if you are not explicitly conditioning your idea of a good society on what society actually exists.

Imagine for example the case of wounded vets. Almost all of us would feel bad if there was wasn’t descent medical care for wounded veterans. We feel a duty towards them. Not everyone does, however. Some people don’t care at all. How then can we justify forcing those people, via their tax money, to pay to support our value – helping wounded vets.

We lean, as Greg does it parts of his essay, on the notion that without public support there wouldn’t be enough private charity. Of the majority of us who do care about wounded vets, most of us might give. Yet, still other people – people who like us care about wounded vets – would not give because they hoped that someone else would give in their place. People would free ride on helping vets. 

Wounded veterans suffering because of free riders seems horrible. However, this is only a moral problem if we are concerned about the actual amount of care that vets end up with. That is, in order to justify publically funding wounded veterans, we must care about the consequences of our public policy choices, not just about fairness of the process. 

Once you opened the door to caring about the consequences of public policy choices that door is hard to shut. For a while I argued that this “slippery slope” meant that we had to embrace some from of anarcho-capitalism. Opening the door to any evaluation of consequences meant that we were in a full-blown consequentialist paradigm. That I thought was clearly bad.

Yet, over time that bullet proved too hard to bite. consequences did matter. Once I accepted that, the question then switched to “how do we evaluate when consequences are good or bad”

This leads me into something that is more or less Rawlsian. That is, that society should function so as to help out the least advantaged. That’s a hard switch, I admit, but the middle ground is not stable. The middle ground only works we you don’t spend too much time thinking about what you are endorsing.

I have some technical issues with Rawls. I don’t think maximizing the welfare of the least well off is appropriate even under the scenario that Rawls sets out. However, its hard to argue that concern for the least well off is not an important part of evaluating whether we are living in the society we want.

This leads me to a social view similar to Krugman where he states

The point is that you don’t, in fact, have to be that radical once you drop the rigidity of the conservative position. If you admit that life is unfair, and that there’s only so much you can do about that at the starting line, then you can try to ameliorate the consequences of that unfairness.

Importantly this unfairness need not, and in general is not, man-made. One of the problems I have with the approach taken by some on the  left is the assumption that life is unfair because of racism, oppression, kleptocracy, etc. These things clearly exist but are not the primary source of unfairness. The primary source of unfairness is the fact that nature simply has no inherent justice. Contrary to common human intuition there is no cosmic balance or karma. Bad things happen to good people all the time and there is no point at which any natural force will rectify this.

In extreme cases, children are born with horrible genetic diseases. This is certainly not a punishment for offenses in a previous life. However, it’s not a lesson or a test from which better things will come either. They are just screwed. Life is just unfair.. Unless other human beings take action no entity is coming to help and things will not get better. Indeed, as I have said before the one thing that you can count in almost any situation is that ultimately things are bound to get much worse. This is no one’s fault and it’s not something we deserve. It’s just that we were born into the world and the world is thus.

The question before us, is that given that we were all born into this world – which is neither friendly nor hospitable nor ultimately even survivable – what can we do about it? What we can do is build a society that alleviates as much pain as we can and provides some people with the opportunity for genuine happiness. To do this its helpful to redistribute some wealth. We can’t make everything better through redistribution and too much redistribution will actually make things worse. However, we can make things a little less painful, we can provide a bit more joy and that’s a good thing. That’s a slightly better world, which is what we should be aiming for.

Importantly, we don’t redistribute because the people who have wealth have done anything wrong. Indeed, they have done good. We are glad to have them. We can, do and should honor them. However, we also note that taking a portion of what they have can ease the suffering of others and that’s also a good thing.  Ultimately, it’s a balancing act. We can and should debate where the correct balance is.

What we should not do is pretend that there is some inherent justice in the market system. The market, when it is working well, reflects the actual costs and benefits of action in the real world, but the real world is deeply, deeply unjust.