In Defense of Redistribution

One of the most controversial political questions concerns the rightness of economic redistribution (from the rich to the poor) by the state. Some people reject it because they believe the state itself is immoral; some people because the state cannot legitimately use its coercive power except for certain predefined ends (mainly protecting people from violence and upholding contracts); some people because economic redistribution is an inefficient way to increase the wealth of the people (even though they see no problem with the state having such powers). Other reasons are, of course, thinkable.

Reasons to accept economic redistribution might be to increase economic equality (of outcomes), simply because one believes equality is good in itself, or because one believes that everyone should have access to certain basic goods. The latter view would only resort to redistribution up to the point where everyone has these basic goods, whereas the radical egalitarian would, presumably, keep going until everyone has the same amount of resources. Another reason altogether might be that redistribution is a fair way to compensate minorities who have been badly treated in the past.

As a hedonist, I am only interested in the maximization of happiness (or pleasure). Obviously the sum of happiness (or the average happiness) would not increase by redistributing “hedons” (units of happiness) from the very happy to the moderately happy (were such redistribution possible), so hedonists should perhaps reject the idea of redistribution. Note, however, that even though we cannot redistribute happiness directly, we can redistribute certain sources of happiness, the most important (at least in this day and age) being money. And if we assume that it is false that the more money you get, the more happy you will become, then economic redistribution is back on the table.

The assumption is, thus, that the richer you get, the less extra happiness you will get in return for your extra money. Redistributing that money to much poorer persons will do more good in increasing the overall happiness. Then the best solution seems to be to redistribute all income from the rich to the poor until everyone is equally rich (or poor).

But for this to work, the hedonist must make another assumption, namely that all (or most) of the participants in society are hedonists. This is, of course, not the case. A rich convinced hedonist sees no problem in paying high taxes to help the poor; but if taxes are high, and if most rich people are not hedonists, then those rich people might just stop earning so much money or try to avoid taxes by placing their money abroad, etc. But some of the recipients of redistributed money are probably not hedonists either, so there is always a danger of giving “free” money to people who will not advance the cause for general happiness. Some of them might  be egoists, and if we lift them out of poverty, they might refuse to share any of their resources when they are back on their feet, or they may use their resources for activities that actively lower general happiness.

We can never hope to live in a world where everyone is a convinced hedonist and therefore there is a limit to how much economic redistribution can take place. Where to draw the line is an empirical matter. Nevertheless, I live in a country where taxes (as well as GDP) are already fairly high, but I see great possibilities for raising the taxes further, if only more people (especially in the middle class) realize that the money they spend on things like long vacations (including air travel), home improvement, cars, cellphones, computers, fancy food and clothes, going to the movies, etc., would do more good in the pockets of poorer people – in their own country, and elsewhere.

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