Thursday, February 14, 2008

Happiness and Distributive Justice

P: If you have your health, you have everything.

P is true. Well, as long as we take it as going without saying that you have your freedom, as well. Chuang-tzu eccentrically opined that not even health is necessary to contentment, and perhaps freedom is not necessary as well. I think even he would admit that it takes a person of extraordinary character to grasp the truth of this extreme view. So, leave that possibility aside. We're interested in political philosophy here, principles that pertain to the lot of us, not just to the eccentrics. For our purposes, if you have your health (and freedom), you have everything.

P is perennial wisdom. It runs deep. To deny it is to put an insurmountable barrier between oneself and happiness; it is psychologically unhealthy.

This old wisdom has a role in distributive justice, the topic in political philosophy. Libertarians, given their principles, should scoff at the notion of such a topic, as from their point of view any redistribution of goods obtained by free and informed transactions and labors is illegitimate. Liberals, given their views, should scoff back at the callousness they perceive in anyone unwilling to acknowledge the justice of redistributions aimed at transferring wealth from rich to poor. Conservatives who accept that some such redistribution is required by justice or at least allowed by it can expect to be scorned by libertarians for confusing justice with theft and scorned by liberals for countenancing only a niggardly transfer. I have had this scorn heaped on me by both libertarians and liberals. I delight in this irony.

What the conservative has in mind is that it is unseemly for anyone who has his health to feel it an injustice that he doesn't have more (when he hasn't done anything to earn more.) It is more than unseemly. It is morally and psychologically dysfunctional. It is an atavism, to use the Nietzschean term. It entails that someone who has every externality required for happiness and has not had anything he earned taken from him deserves to be given more goods. It entails that such a person has a grievance. It is sick to have everything one needs and believe one is owed by everyone who has more. This is a frame of mind incompatible with happiness. It also militates against self-reliance, one of the most important internalities required for happiness and for building a good life.

The liberal view of distributive justice of a society is that it is roughly inversely proportional to the degree of disparity in wealth between the society's haves and the have-nots. There is no sound argument for this position. In addition, it is unhealthy. It's not just that the radical redistribution advocated by the liberal is, as a matter of empirical fact, corrosive of tendencies to self-reliance or that it violates the property rights of the wealthy. Radical redistribution is based upon an unhealthy conceptual confusion about happiness; it is based upon a failure to recognize that P is true.

There are some additional issues regarding what exactly is owed by the haves to the have-nots, according to the conservative position I'm developing here. What of the scorn heaped by the libertarian and the liberal on this tepid view of redistribution? We'll take these issues up in the next post.