May 15

An Argument for Limited Redistribution of Wealth

For a while now I have thought that redistribution of wealth was unjustified since it involved a form of taxation that I thought violated people’s rights. However, there is what appears to be a sound argument for the view that some redistribution of wealth through taxation is morally justified, even though taxation is a violation of people rights. The argument goes as follows:

(1) It is permissible for someone in a sufficiently dire state of need through no fault of their own to steal in order to provide for that need, assuming that there are no other viable options for securing what they need.
(2) This entails that some actions that constitute a violation of someone’s rights can be overridden by considerations of extreme circumstance.
(3) If it is permissible for someone in these circumstances to visit a rights violation on a random individual, then it would be better if we could ensure that the rights violation was visited on someone to whom the harm of the violation would be lessened.
(4) Taxation, though typically a rights violation, would be a means of controlling the distribution of harm in violating people’s rights as a means of providing for the needs people face in these situations.
(5) These harms would be lessened if they were disproportionately levied against people who were better off to begin with, since losing a comparable amount of a good is less damaging to those who have more of that good.
(6) So, if there are no viable alternative means for a society to ensure that people are not facing, through no fault of their own, conditions that would justify visiting a rights violation on a random individual, then taxing the rich in order to help these individuals would be morally justified.

This situation of redistributing wealth does still involve a rights violation on my view, and it would be better if individual citizens would take it upon themselves to create alternatives to taxation that prevented the possibility of a situation arising where the need for such a rights violation existed. Until people create such alternatives, however, the justification for redistribution seems to hold up for any situation where we would say that individuals facing it would be justified in visiting a comparable rights violation on a random individual in order to get out of that situation. People who advocate smaller governments are therefore morally obligated to establish and fund alternative private means of providing for the basic needs of those who are suffering greatly through no fault of their own. I think this is a sound argument. It has implications for a number of views that I am now beginning to think I had too strong of a position on. For example, suffering from a horrible disease for which there is an available cure that you couldn’t possibly afford would seem to meet the requirements for (1), so long as you aren’t to blame for your ailment. Therefore, the state may be justified in taxing people to pay for medical treatments in extreme cases, at least until charities arise to provide such care when the need arises. This account does have the nice feature that most redistributive taxation is unjustified, since typically people have other means of providing for their needs, or are largely to blame for their condition. It also preserves the, in my view correct intuition that taxation, particularly when it isn’t used to pay for services you wish to pay for in such a way, are an instance of a rights violation.

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