"Inequality at birth is neither just nor unjust. What's just and unjust is the way institutions deal with it" - John Rawls
"I always had a certain dislike for general principles and abstract prescriptions. I think it's necessary to have an "empirical lantern" or a "visit with the patient" before being able to understand what is wrong with him. It is crucial to understand the peculiarity, the specificity, and also the unusual aspects of the case" - Albert O. Hirschman
Emerging threat to morality underlying redistribution
In human societies, some earn more, some earn less. People are taxed and some of it is redistributed to the bottom. Morality underlies the legitimacy for such redistribution.
This underlying morality is increasingly coming under crisis. People at the higher end increasingly seem to think that their money and success are due to their hard work alone, and worse, they extend this logic to think the poor are in such position because they don’t work hard. They go on to demand stopping redistribution, in extreme cases.
Society is held together not by force by a certain morality that has emerged over years. The thinking as noted above threatens the whole edifice of human society, thus the nation and state.
We might be seeing this happen in India. Comments like the following have become increasingly common.
"I earn, I pay my taxes, only to know that it's being distributed among "gareeb" for free while I slog my ass off."
"Well, rich people create jobs. Poor people only create more poor people."
This is especially baffling because of the Indian rich pay one of the lowest taxes—only 33% for the top slab, whereas taxes range from 40–50% in US, Germany etc.
One can have a debate on the amount of tax—whether the tax should be 40, as per our tax collecting capacity. But the arguments that one’s success is only due to one’s hard work; the poor are lazy and not hard working; the reason for poverty is the poor’s attitude — is nothing but a sheer intellectual and moral bankruptcy.
Not just the individuals venting out their outrage, this attitude is prevalent in “economic liberals” in policy circles as well, who are supposed to be more reasoned than the normal individuals. A case in point: this argument that education is not a human right because someone else pays for it.
This phenomenon can grow with time, as incomes rise. The higher income people start thinking that they got their money solely because of their hard work, while resisting redistribution, the lower income people can argue the opposite. It might create a social tension.
It’s thus important for everyone to realise their privilege —Our success is not our hard work alone, it depends on lot other factors, which came to us without any effort of ours. In that, there is certain moral arbitrariness.
John Rawls framed an excellent thought experiment to think through the morality of redistribution.
Assume you are behind a veil of ignorance, where you don’t know your position in the society. Now, after the veil is removed, you will be assigned randomly to any one of the positions in the society—you can be rich/poor, male/female, urban/rural etc.
Now, the task is for you to come up with principles that such society should follow. It means that after the veil is removed, you will be living in a society that follows the rules you designed while you were behind the veil.
What rules would you think such world should have?
In an elaborate argument spanning over a book of 600 pages, Rawls argued that people would agree upon the following two principles of Justice
Equal basic liberties.
Any inequality is justified only if it makes the least advantaged better off. It means that higher incomes inequality is justified only if it is redistributed and makes the least advantaged better off. It’s a good way to think to remove our moral biases.
This will ensure that you won’t be subject to vagaries of the world if you end up being poor. This is a way to correct the moral arbitrariness of inequality at birth.
This simple thought experiment is a powerful tool to realise the privilege and moral arbitrariness of birth. It keeps people grounded.
In India, as elsewhere, the privileged tend to nurture the illusion that they “deserve” what they have. This illusion, however, evaporates with even the most casual introspection. Sure, some rich people work hard—but so do koilawalas, construction workers, and domestic helpers. Other bases of privilege have little to do with personal merit: our aptitudes, health, inheritance, social connections, and other assets derive from contingencies (such as the accident of birth) over which we have no control. Even our education reflects inherited circumstances, and our parents’ and teachers’ efforts, far more than our own. All this is without going into the fact that wealth and power often build on corruption, exploitation, and crime.