Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Is redistribution inside national boundaries legitimate ?

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.

3 comments:

Scott M. Sullivan said...

Interesting...but is this third criticism a critique of redistribution or a critique of conceptions (and applications) of state sovereignty? The first two critiques you outline naturally lead to a belief that there should be little, if any, state redistribution, whereas the third leads to a conclusion that the boundaries of redistribution should simply be expanded.

Srdjan Cvijic said...

You say, "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." I agree with you partially, it is true that social-democratic welfare state is the result of the abovementioned social struggles, however, why was it possible only in the rich capitalist countries to achieve such a system and not in poor countries of the third world. One should not forget colonialism, centuries of exploitation and the fact that rich countries are rich, partially because of geopolitical circumstance, efforts of the citizens of these rich countries, but also because of plunder, occupation of their ex-colonial possessions. Such historical fact should, morally speaking, present a powerful incentive to fight for worldvide solidarity.

Akbar said...

(i) The argument underlying your second remark is grounded in a sequence of elementary conceptual errors the result of which has been the construction of an obvious non sequitur.

Redistribution of wealth on the global scale is NOT about fostering free trade (or indeed bringing down any kind of protective barriers in trade).

The analytical point of reference in relation to which the idea of redistribution is normally worked out is the tax-and-aid activities pursued by (most) modern governments: take money from those who have [fact], give it to those who should have more [choice].

The referential point behind the idea of redistribution is NOT the effective undoing of private property (or the equivalent thereof in the context of global economy) or the chilling of the greed drive by which private gain is secured.

Redistribution is NOT about racing to the bottom. Nor is it about prohibiting the economic equivalent of meritocracy.

(ii) Here's an argument why the fear of the undemocratising spirit of redistribution is spurious.

Just like one doesn't need to subscribe to any essentialist ideology about the notion of human dignity to be able to recognise that the idea of human rights includes the prohibition of torture, one doesn't need to subscribe to any essentialist ideology about economic justice to be able to recognise that the concept of redistribution first and foremost refers to the redistribution of actual articles of wealth.

We haven't made even the first step yet, how come we're already complaining about the problems that could in theory surround our hundredth step? Before we get to the stage where we can all moan about the conceptual-ideological conflict between the notions of redistribution on the one hand and democracy, national sovereignty or whatever other transcendental-nonsensical idea will spawn the greatest number of buzzwords of the day, on the other, let's see some good old-fashioned money transfers first.

On a slightly different note, I wonder if you've noticed how this whole argument that redistribution means illegitimation of democracy, etc., looks very suspiciously like a classical right-wing smokescreen. Given how vacuous it is, it seems that the only people who'd have a stake in developing it would be those whom everyone would otherwise expect to start paying out.

(iii) "All that is good for us is bad for others ... This is of course a very simplistic argument"

No, it is not. It is an absurd argument. By that logic, most of us have to commit suicide, since our continuous daily existence causes the horrific destruction of rainforests, cows, whales, butterflies, germs, and, if that were not enough, other people (what with all those other nice folks our parents could have begotten had it not been for us poisoning their lives and depleting their financial resources).

(iv) "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."

Sorry, but this is just a flood of fancily arranged and eagerly hyphenated words, supported neither by facts, nor rigorously worked out theoretical framework.

To mention but one example: the totality of practices united under the common heading of "anti/alter-globalisation movement" is so insanely diversified - trashing fast-food restaurants to boycotting foreign products to resisting the spread of English words into your native language to putting a cap on the number of Hollywood films that can be shown on national TV - that to claim one can draw any conclusive evidence from it that would help elucidate the nature of the predicament in which that nebulously entitled thing called "post-communism left-wing political project" finds itself today is, at the very least, analytically suspect.

The part about the "worldwide social empathy" for "post-communism left-wing political project" raises more questions than it settles. Are you saying that empathy must be there for that project to succeed? Or that this empathy must be worldwide? Does this apply to all kinds of "post-communism left-wing political projects" or only some? And how does "social empathy" differ from the regular one?