It seems to have become increasingly difficult to argue for policies of redistribution in favour of the working class. Traditionally, these types of policies encountered two main criticisms in political discourse. The first, definitively stemming from a right-wing ideology, is grounded in a concept of justice according to which everyone should have goods in proportion with individual merit. Redistribution is not desirable because it ruins the just allocation of resources provided by the market. The second criticism is neither from the right nor from the left-wing. It argues that redistribution is not unjust but simply inefficient: that it grips the mechanisms of the market thus hampering the production of goods. More goods are distributed, relatively to what is produced, but fewer goods are produced and in the end the situation of the individuals meant to be helped is more harmed than enhanced.
If it is becoming more difficult to argue in favour of policies of redistribution it is because besides these two classical criticisms, a third one definitely based in a left-wing ideology is becoming increasingly present in political discourse. This third criticism is the opposite of the first one as it is grounded on a concept of justice which justifies redistribution. According to this criticism, redistribution is desirable insofar as it is not restricted to the working class of a particular country. Both the boundaries of the Nation State and those of the working class lead to unjust limitations in policies of redistribution. This criticism favours policies of redistribution through which fewer goods are redistributed to each individual but they are redistributed to more individuals.
This argument was formulated with particular force in two recent debates. The first time was during the debate around the EU Constitution. It is unjust, said some promoters of the constitutional project, to refuse the Treaty in order to preserve a higher level of social protection in certain countries. Justice would require the working class in richer countries to abandon their level of social protection in order for people in poorer countries to benefit from the increased protection that would go along with further European integration. The second time the argument was formulated with force was during the controversy of ‘Le lundi de Pentecôte’. Last year the French government decided to raise money in order to help older and socially isolated citizens by cancelling a vacation day and collecting all of the worker’s salaries from that day. But a large part of the population refused to go along and attendance at work was quite low. Many workers refused to work arguing that it shouldn’t be the workers helping their elders but rather society as a whole or the richer social classes. In this occurrence again, it was said that the left-wing was acting in an egoistic manner, refusing to help an other, less well-off, social class.
This third criticism rests upon an argument which is appealing. As the alter-mondialist movement shows, the reconstruction of a post-communism left-wing political project should certainly be fuelled by a worldwide social empathy. However because it is an appealing argument, it is also a dangerous one which should be used with caution. A few remarks are therefore in order.
1/ If, in common (as opposed to philosophical) political thinking, it is accepted that redistribution should be done on a scale much wider than the national State, the novelty of this political culture should not be neglected. Which society, in the past, has accepted that its members should accept to lower the level of their welfare for the sole reason of improving that of citizens of a different country?
2/The argument doesn’t contain in itself any reasons for limiting redistribution inside Europe or the countries applying for membership. Policies destined to protect social rights of citizens in richer countries are illegitimate as long as they contribute even indirectly to hampering the improvement of the welfare of a poorer community, somewhere in the world. According to this argument, for example, we should not at all restrict the importations of Chinese cloths for to protect European industries. But we could go further than that and say that democratic institutions that tend to make the industry of a country A rather competitive (because they provides peace, education, possibilities for research etc.), are illegitimate because in some poorer country B, the political climate doesn’t provide such conditions; the goods produced there are less competitive, fewer are sold and therefore the welfare of the population is not improved as much as it would if the institutions in country A were not democratic. Following this line of thinking we should conclude that not only democracy but also education, peace, research, efficient infrastructures etc. are also illegitimate. All that is good for us is bad for others… This is of course a very simplistic argument; however it may go to show that the criticism on national based redistribution has the potential to threaten more than just a high level of social rights protection.
3/ Finally this criticism seems to suggest that in richer countries we would give up certain social rights now to help others and possibly regain them later all together. Social rights were not awarded by the generous capitalists, nor were they always negotiated by able and socially sensitive politicians, they were gained through battles involving violence, death, hunger, humiliation etc. Since the eighteenth century and until now, the number of rights possessed by the working class slowly but constantly increased. When initiating the reversal of this historical movement we should not forget how much time it took to get to where we are and thus not neglect the fact that it may take a very long time to get back.