Basic human liberties such as freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and freedom to acquire and hold private property are more important than economic prosperity in an abstract sense.
Given a choice between living in a rich country where basic human liberties are denied (so you would live an affluent life swimming in money but you could go to prison merely for voicing your opinion) or living in a poor country where you are free to say what you like without fear of persecution, most people would choose to hold onto their basic liberties and take their chances with the poverty situation. After all, once you have secured your basic liberties you are free to work on attaining prosperity to the best of your ability and nobody will stand in your way.
But if you start with a situation where your basic liberties are denied then attaining prosperity is pointless; if you get arbitrarily and unfairly locked up and all your stuff seized with no right of appeal, that would be the end of your personal economic prosperity. Fundamental civil liberties should therefore be understood as a prerequisite for sustainable economic prosperity.
There is no real dispute about any of that. There is a general consensus on what counts as a basic liberty: things like life, liberty, speech, conscience, assembly and association, etc. Where does 'equality' fit into that framework? Is equality a basic liberty? If so, equality of what: do we each have a fundamental human right to have as much wealth as other people?
Many people today would say that equality is essential for basic liberties to be meaningful. It's meaningless to guarantee the right to life, and then say that only people of a certain race or gender have the right to life. Once a value is upheld as a basic liberty, everyone should be equally entitled to enjoy that liberty. Equality as a basic principle has therefore come to be understood as being, itself, essential to the existence of basic liberties. As stated in the European Convention on Human Rights:
This is where it gets interesting. If you have the right to be 'equal' with those around you in terms of enjoying basic liberties, then that right serves as a gateway to so many other rights that you can claim. The possibilities are endless! First of all, if other people have more stuff than you then you could argue that this infringes upon your equality rights in terms of enjoying the right to own property:
How can you peacefully enjoy your possessions, while suffering in conditions where other people have more possessions than you? Let's remember that the government has a duty to address your suffering:
It is true that peaceful enjoyment of your stuff is not defined in Section I of the European convention as a basic liberty, because socialist Europeans go all shy and get quite nervous when the subject of private property is raised. Even in America where people are generally less cagey about reality and tend not to be embarrassed about the existence of wealthy people amongst us the right to private property is an afterthought introduced by amendment to the constitution:
Article 1 Protocol 1 of the European Convention is pretty much interpreted in the same way as the 5th Amendment, i.e. as a guarantee of the right to private property:
You could therefore argue that if all human beings have a right to be equal in the enjoyment of basic liberties then they do have an equal right to have a comfortable and safe home to live in, an above-average school for the children, a secure job where all the workers earn more or less an equal wage, etc. A right to be equal with other people, in terms of how much fun your life is, is the foundation for a whole host of other rights that give effect and meaning to that equality. Is our fundamental equality being guaranteed by the government, in conditions where millionaires are cruising around on their yachts, sipping champagne, dripping diamonds and making us feel so angry because of how shameless they are? I don't think so.
From this starting point it follows logically that redistribution has come to be viewed as a key mechanism for protecting and defending basic liberties. Just as we think the government should secure the right to life, it surely follows that the government must also secure the equality of all people in terms of how we perceive our material conditions. This then elevates redistribution to a policy priority, on the reasoning that redistribution safeguards fundamental human liberties.
This interpretation puts those who don’t agree with redistributive policies in an awkward position. If you oppose redistribution, you would thereby appear to have immediately classified yourself as someone who opposes fundamental human liberties as enshrined in all civilised human rights conventions. In that interpretative framework there is no easy way to disagree with economic equality without, by definition, appearing also to disagree with the right to life, freedom of conscience, freedom of speech…you see the problem: fundamental human rights are enshrined in the constitution so the more 'extra' plastic rights we have piggy-backing on the basic liberties, the more difficult it becomes to contest such rights.
The plastic rights bask in the aura of other basic liberties, and are elevated by association to the status of being inalienable. This becomes even more important in the modern lexicon where 'I would like to have' or 'I need' is the same thing as 'I have a right to'...so you can create an inalienable right to pretty much anything you want.
Therefore the stakes are extraordinarily high for those who wish to attack the validity of redistributive policies. If you think redistribution is fundamentally unfair, and indeed stupid and pointless, you must try to distinguish the ‘right’ to 'equality' from other basic rights and liberties. You must find a way to say that you support life and liberty but you disagree with economic equality. This is not as easy as you’d think, because if you disagree with notions of equality as commonly understood there is an unfortunate signalling effect: i.e. people think you're probably not a very nice person and now nobody wants to be your friend. This is a serious hazard because we all want to be thought of as nice people:
There is also the matter of embracing the letter and spirit of our law. In our legal framework all rights, whether real or plastic, come in a bundle and when you are justifying fundamental rights you have to encompass the whole bundle, you can’t just separate out the various elements and select the rights you agree with. It’s like trying to get a land line [Ed: for those who don’t know what that is, it’s an archaic telephonic system] from a company that bundles your home phone with a mobile phone, cable television, internet and household insurance. Try telling them you just want the home phone, thanks, and see how you get on. It simply cannot be done. It’s not on the call-centre worker’s laminated script, and if you ask for that she won’t even know what to tell you because she has no instructions on responding to that kind of madness. Or those ridiculous people who order a Big Mac 'without the mayonnaise' or a Caesar salad 'without the croutons' or American tourists who ask for ice in an English pub and wonder why the beer is so warm: has the fridge broken down, they ask?
All these awkward punters deviating from the prescribed norm and attempting to pick and choose are, at the very least, annoying to all those around them. They have failed to fall in line and conform to social conventions and expectations and they are not actually fit to live in polite society.
Similarly in the modern age, if you acknowledge the right to life and liberty you are required to accept a bundle that includes equality and redistribution. Redistribution means exactly what the great hero Robin Hood showed us: taking from the rich to give to the poor. Having started out as an outlaw, Robin Hood has by now come to embody the spirit of our times.
The prior question is, how did we come to include equality and redistribution in the bundle of fundamental rights? Well, some fashionable philosophers argue that if you were poor, you’d definitely be in favour of redistribution because you’d be happy that rich people would be forced to share with you. Whereas if you were rich, you might not enjoy redistribution all that much but at least you wouldn’t suffer too badly from it. After all, no government taxes 100% of their citizens' wealth so everyone still gets to keep some of their income - this year Tax Freedom Day in the UK was on May 29th, which means we only had to work 5 months to fund our tax contributions and for the next 7 months we're perfectly free to keep our earnings. 7 out of 12 is not that bad, really. It's more than half. Could be worse. Surely nobody is so churlish as to resent working for 5 months for free, to help those less fortunate than themselves. Otherwise how would civilised society function? Poor people would have to rely on charity or something. It would be like the Victorian era and nobody wants that.
Based on these supposedly rational assumptions, the fashionable philosophical explanation is that if you had to make a law that would be fair to everyone, and you had no crystal ball to gaze into and discover whether your future destiny involved poverty or riches, you’d go with the redistribution law just to hedge your bets. That way, if you turned out poor at least you’d get money off the rich folk, which would be awesome. If you turned out rich, well, you’d have to share 5/12 of your earnings with the taxman which is slightly disappointing but not intolerable because after all you were brought up to share nicely with others so it wouldn’t be the end of the world and just think how proud your mother would be because of how nicely you shared. From this intellectual exercise we must conclude that redistributive policies would be chosen by any rational person who wanted to produce a fair outcome.
This reasoning, which is reflected in various permutations of Rawlsian ideal theory and in reasoning about what people would choose behind a ‘veil of ignorance’ where they couldn't forsee or predict their fortunes, is based on two false assumptions:
1. First, that if you knew you were going to be poor (or you didn’t know whether you’d be poor or not and there was a reasonable chance you might end up poor), you’d want to ensure that rich people would be forced by law to share with you. This is wrong. Not all poor people have this poisonous ‘someone needs to fix my problems’ mentality. Some poor people actually prefer to make do with what they have and rely on themselves to fix their own problems. I know, shocking. There are actually people who believe that it’s a virtue to reject charity and they construct their lives accordingly.
It’s true that such people are dying out, but their stories still inspire succeeding generations. How else would you explain the popularity of the Little House books? Many of us read those books when we were young, and now we read them to our own young ones. Nobody reads those books and thinks 'OMG those poor people somebody needs to help them'. Even though they did suffer some truly tough times, the story of their lives is an inspirational tribute to freedom, independence, self-reliance and the triumph of the human spirit. Being poor is by no means romantic – who hasn’t wept at stories of children growing up in grinding poverty like Angela’s Ashes – and those who grew up poor will know about it first hand without having to read about it in a book. But being poor does not mean that you have to live without pride and dignity or start hating on those who had an easier path through life. Many of us know this from our own experience. I have known so many people who grew up poor who say that while they were growing up they didn't think of themselves as poor or disadvantaged. I totally identify with that.
2. Second, that rich people wouldn’t share unless there was a law compelling them to do so. It is true that many rich people are like this, and good luck to them, may their lack of charity never come back to haunt them like a bunch of Dickensian ghosts. But the vast majority of rich people give enormous amounts to charity, and they seem to derive great pride and satisfaction from helping others.
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