Here are some of the enabling axioms we’re going to need, both a) to define distributive justice, and then b) to settle on what a just distribution might look like.

Let the x axis be one’s share of the cooperative dividend. Let the y axis be the frequency of members in possession of that share. And let the original position according to Hobbes (or HOP) be what the curve might have looked like, or once again would look like, “were there no common power [a.k.a government] to fear”. Under such a condition, Hobbes reminds us, “the life of man” was and/or would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”. For the purposes of this analysis, we’re going to confine ourselves to what Hobbes means by this ‘state of nature’ being ‘poor’, and that is that the area under the curve, no matter what shape it happened to be, would be extremely low.

By contrast, now let the original position according to Locke (or LOP) be what it might look like were everyone to subscribe to his value-addition theory of property entitlement, coupled with the Lockean Proviso, the latter meaning what we’d now call Pareto-optimality. That is, one can only improve her own state provided by doing so she doesn’t worsen the state of anyone else. Under these conditions the area under the curve would be considerably higher.

It’s important to note, however, that neither the HOP nor the LOP would prove the least bit stable. To escape a life so solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short, Hobbes counsels that we make covenant with each other to institute – or more commonly to acquiesce to – a sovereign “to keep us all in awe”.

And so the first question is, by distributive justice do we mean, as would the utilitarian, maximising the area under the curve? If so, the Lockean proposal won’t do. Why? Because the question can always be asked of the erstwhile-rightfully wealthy, “Yes, but what have you done for us lately?” The Lockean could answer – as Robert Nozick tries to do – that redistribution discourages production and imposes prohibitive transaction costs on all concerned. But this is only contingently the case. Where it’s not the Lockean has to abandon his consequentialist credentials and resort to some kind of Kantian rights-talk. And as Mill rightly points out, rights-talk is notoriously underdetermining.

In fact rights-talk is particularly unhelpful in settling on how we should distribute the cooperative dividend of any post-OP civil society. A more helpful way, or so I want to argue, is to define distributive justice in more Hobbesian terms, namely “What distribution of the cooperative dividend is most likely to keep us from killing each other?” And the answer to that is as follows:

Under the HOP, the shape of the curve, and the area under it, fluctuates with the alacrity of the weather. Tom takes a wife. Dick kills him for her. Dick builds a house. Harry burns it down. So pretty much any sovereign monopoly of the means of violence is better than no sovereign at all. 

But, pace Hobbes, that’s not a reason not to risk a period of instability in the hope of installing a sovereign more to our liking. But since the sovereign’s job just is imposing the distribution of the cooperative dividend least likely to provoke rebellion, the distribution of the cooperative dividend least likely to provoke rebellion is what we can now mean by distributive justice. Quod erat demonstrandum.

Now let’s see what that distribution might look like.

The curve under Locke’s proposal would look something like the hat of a state trooper. A wide brim to the right – those on whom the natural lottery smiled most kindly – and a wider brim to the left – those to whom it was considerably less generous. And why is the trooper unstable? Because those towards the left will be inclined – in fact some may have no choice but – to loot those on the right, such that the brims will contract, eventually leaving something resembling more of a graduand’s mortar board. 

And why, in turn, is the mortar board unstable? Because it’s sub-pareto-optimal. It produces just enough to ensure subsistence. And so pareto-superiority will regenerate just enough brim to resemble what we generally find in materially well-endowed societies like ours, namely the bowler.

If this is right – or even approximately right – we’re now in a position to re-introduce rights-talk, only now with a more useful meaning. I have a right to my house, dammit, not because I worked hard for it, which I didn’t, but because in Canada in 2022 there’s a stable equilibrium under which it behooves the rest of you to assign it to me.

But we’re also in a position to note that there are also liberal dividends to be had (or lost). A woman has a right to reproductive autonomy in Canada in 2022 because there’s a stable equilibrium, touch wood, under which it behooves the rest of us to concede that autonomy to her. Though how stable an equilibrium has lately proven to be open to some very serious worry.

There are, of course, material inputs that could challenge the model I’ve just outlined. Imagine the Martians have invaded such that we cannot rebel, and they’ll simply not abide any gender, or racial, equality among us. It would be odd to call that just. 

So perhaps we should say that distributive justice is the distribution of the cooperative dividend that would be least likely to provoke rebellion under what we’ve have to specify, as did John Rawls, as the circumstances of distributive justice. Just how much damage that would do to our analysis we’d have to see. For example, we wouldn’t want all the interesting questions we’ve had about distributive justice to just fall back onto defining the circumstances of justice.

That worry aside – and it’s by no means a trivial one – the key takeaway is that Hobbes was on the path more descriptive of what actually happens in the world. And there’s something to be said for not having to suppose, as Locke does, that we’ve always and everywhere been mistaken about what’s a reasonable way to divvy things up between us. 

Categories: Social and Political Philosophy, Why My Colleagues Are Idiots

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