Socioeconomic Rights and American Conceptions of Distributive Justice
Social programs shielding people from selected hazards now have a history of slightly over a century, but only since the 1940s have the benefits these programs provide been commonly considered beneficiary rights. In the postwar period this view has been most clearly enunciated in the United Kingdom. Increased British social solidarity during the war years, while not without its limits, facilitated William Beveridge's effort to gain recognition of standard, minimum social program benefits as rights of citizenship. While the character of British social program benefits has changed over the years, the idea of benefits as a class of rights, socioeconomic rights, has flourished both in Britain and throughout industrial societies generally. This trend has been more pronounced in the "corporatist democracies" than in other nations, but even the United States has shared in this tendency. The status of some American program benefits as rights marks something of a watershed in the nation's history, denoting a period in which distributive justice has been affirmed as a value and as a phenomenon distinct from market distribution. The nature of a just distribution may vary with the good being distributed. After examining how social program benefits might be called rights, I will discuss a particular concept of socioeconomic rights tailored to American beliefs about just distributions for the goods these benefits entail.
Socioeconomic Rights in Theory
Following Joel Feinberg, I construe rights as a certain type of claim. Claims are cases meriting consideration, and rights are claims "whose recognition as valid is called for by some set of governing rules or moral principles." Legal rights are recognized by rules of positive law, and existing social program benefits may be thought of as rights in this sense. But Feinberg extends the category of rights beyond existing statute: moral rights are claims "the recognition of which is called for—not (necessarily) by legal rules—but by moral principles or the principles of an enlightened conscience" (p. 277). For Feinberg, entitlements represent a different dimension of rights than do claims. If I have a legal right to retirement benefits, Feinberg explains, this right merges an entitlement to benefits with a claim against anyone who might obstruct my receipt of them, a recalcitrant social security administrator perhaps.
Let us set positive law aside for a while and not rest claims for socioeconomic rights on the convenience that throughout advanced societies many such rights are found in law. Instead, we may turn to the logical, empirical, and normative underpinnings that give validity to claims for such rights. I start from the premise that the sophisticated sorts of conscious agency which are the distinguishing features of human life hinge on both freedom and well-being. Since well-being is just as important a prerequisite for this agency as freedom is, the two deserve coequal status as rights. More broadly, "Any consistent moral code, whatever it might be, is going to have to recognize certain kinds of capacity and needs among persons that will have to be fulfilled if persons are to be able to pursue the ideals enshrined in any moral code." That freedom is both a prerequisite to a distinctively human life and a right of humans is widely accepted in Western thought. That securing well-being through meeting basic material needs should hold a similar status is a more recent and, particularly in the American context, a more controversial point.
Support for the inclusion of resources aimed at basic human needs among people's rights is not hard to come by, however. Food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and education may be viewed as prerequisites to the exercise of rights of a more distinguishingly human character—free expression. Precedence and priorities come
into sharper focus when one ponders the order in which people would give up rights under duress. Voicing one's opinion is surely a more distinguishingly human activity than is eating, but it is not a more basic need and is unlikely to be the preference of many forced to choose between speaking freely and eating.
Arguments supporting coequal status for rights to freedom and well-being confront at least four sorts of practical difficulties. First, free speech and eating are usually not perceived as inhibited by the same forces. Locke taught us to regard the state as a perpetual source of danger to free expression. His predecessor, Hobbes, stressed the threats that our peers pose to freedom of action. While these threats are generally less obvious and brutal today than those envisioned by Hobbes, in most advanced societies informal social pressures—fears that voicing one's opinion will offend one's associates—are probably a more frequent problem than state intervention. Yet the state and one's associates rarely impose similar pressures with respect to eating, particularly for citizens or acquaintances on the brink of starvation. ("Let them eat cake!") The liberal tradition has held that the distribution of material resources is now and ought to be governed largely by impersonal market forces. While many still hold this view, others see conscious human design and manipulation behind market forces. An extensive market system necessarily creates wage dependency and vulnerability for many as well as highly asymmetrical reward distributions. And other social practices such as intergroup prejudices exacerbate the disadvantages with which some have to cope in attempting to meet basic material needs through the market.
Bernard Williams makes an interesting case that it is immoral for society, especially a society wealthy in material resources, to follow practices that leave some of its members' basic needs unmet. The purpose of basic goods, Williams argues, is straightforward. For example, medical care is for healing the sick and injured, not just the sick and injured who are rich; medical care that enriches the provider at the expense of those who need but cannot pay for treatment is an artificial perversion of the concept of healing. For Williams any differences in the treatment humans receive in regard to medical needs should be supported by reasons that are relevant (sick or well) as opposed to irrelevant (rich or poor). But in America arguments revealing the human hand behind market
distribution have been stymied by the inertia of the "invisible hand" theory in the political culture.
A second issue raised by arguments for the coequality of rights to freedom and well-being involves conflicting value hierarchies. Robert Nozick, for example, uses the same Kantian point of departure as Williams—that humans must be ends in themselves rather than means—to deny any individual's right to welfare or duty to help others with their material needs. For Nozick, the individual's freedom not to be treated as a means to another's ends is a paramount value. Grudgingly, he allows for taxes used to finance local police and national defense, purposes that sustain freedom in the long run, but he deems taxes to ensure basic material resources for the unfortunate to be inappropriate constraints on human agency. From this perspective, any claim to such resources runs afoul of the superior and incompatible claims of personal freedom.
Henry Shue proposes instead that we use a priority principle to distinguish among basic rights (food), nonbasic rights (public education), cultural enrichment (Shakespeare over Stallone), and preference satisfaction (Haagen Dazs over Sealtest). No one's liberty, according to Shue, should extend to the area of preference satisfaction if others are thereby blocked from meeting basic needs. Your yacht should not come at the expense of my starvation.
Nozick's position also introduces a third problem for the coequality of freedom and well-being: the difficulties involved in providing freedom and well-being are different. Here we need to distinguish negative rights—the rights associated with negative liberty or freedom from external constraint—from positive rights, the rights to resources that enable individuals to engage in activities previously beyond their reach. Free speech is a negative right; eating is a positive right.
Negative and positive rights are widely held to differ in the demands they make on public policy and the obligations they place on other citizens. The negative civil-political rights now broadly recognized among advanced societies are thought by many to require only forbearance on the part of others; whereas, positive socioeconomic rights are said to require some form of active cooperation or help. For example, allowing a destitute malcontent to praise socialism on a city street corner requires no positive acts of cooperation. But if he is to receive expensive medical care, others
will have to contribute, either directly or through the tax system. Suppose, however, that irate citizens attack this soapbox orator. Then, maintaining his freedom of speech will require the intervention of the police and possibly the courts and prisons, all public institutions supported by taxes. Or suppose that he needed medical care for an injury he had sustained while in the army. Then we could say that had the state not called him into service, no cooperation to help him overcome his current malady would now be necessary. These latter examples blur the distinctions between positive and negative rights and their characteristic balance of government activity and citizen obligation.
Other considerations distinguish negative and positive rights. Negative rights, products of the natural rights of the seventeenth century, may be seen as focusing on procedures, as, in effect, tools of procedural or formal justice; whereas positive rights may be described as products of the twentieth-century human rights movement and as concerned with outcomes or substantive justice. To ensure the rights to freedom, then, all we need to do is identify a set of procedures—a uniform legal code, for instance—as appropriate. But to ensure well-being we would need to examine whether all individuals have the resources (money to hire an attorney) to make use of the code.
Even for those who do not insist that, as a result of these distinguishing provision problems, positive and negative rights differ in kind, differences in degree are important. For instance, the financial burdens that police, courts, and prisons place on the state are small in comparison to those arising from social programs. Additionally, some have argued that it is "easier to state a negative right without reference to degree than a positive one" —although the degrees of, say, free speech are also uncertain and frequently controversial. Among the limits we place on this negative right are restrictions on slanderous speech and statements that exacerbate a "clear and present danger," as well as the perennial injunction against yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater.
A fourth problem for the coequality of rights to freedom and well-being is posed by the following argument.
Negative rights are generally only valuable to those whose rights they are if they are able to do or have that which the right involves, for example to
walk. If they cannot or do not, then a merely negative right could be useless. A positive right, on the other hand, will not normally be of much help to someone who already has what such a right would require others to help supply him with. A negative right, then, can be useless and a positive one redundant. And if negative rights are all we grant, then we may expect the poor and unadvanced to be disgruntled, while if we insist on positive rights as well, the wealthy and powerful might similarly be unhappy. [Narveson, "Human Rights," p. 177]
In other words, rights to expressive freedom and basic resources benefit different groups and rely on varying concepts of liberty. In the United States, a nation steeped in the tradition of negative liberty, negative rights have been more thoroughly supported than positive rights. The well-known association between political participation and socioeconomic status, particularly strong in the United States in the absence of large-scale working-class organization, reinforces the dominance of negative rights of interest to the politically active, materially comfortable portion of society.
The Reagan administration's recent attacks on social programs and through them, socioeconomic rights, are not the first instances of the powerful resisting the extension of opportunities they already possess as rights to a broader section of society. In London at the turn of the nineteenth century, wealthy and politically powerful citizens who could afford private security forces denounced a proposal to establish a public police force as an infringement on liberty. The nineteenth-century British struggle over the extension of political rights also exemplifies this pattern. Suffrage was extended to some middle-class males in the 1830s, but universal male suffrage was opposed by many in the socioeconomic elite who, enjoying extensive political privileges, had no use for political rights. Time and again elites have argued that severe, even civilization-destroying consequences would follow the extension of rights to the masses, whom the elites depicted as too flawed to exercise any new rights in a constructive fashion. Clearly, extensions of political and socioeconomic rights are quite different matters, but the constancy of the opposition's themes is note-worthy. On the subject of socioeconomic rights, in the United States today we again hear the privileged decrying the character of those less fortunate than themselves. Distinctions between negative
and positive rights thus derive not only from abstractions and theoretical premises but also from the material interests of different groups.
In sum, rights to freedom and well-being differ in the typical fashions through which they are constrained, their relative positions in conflicting value hierarchies, the manners of their provision, and their primary beneficiaries. Depending upon one's philosophical perspective, these differences are modest, amounting to minute variations of degree, or so sharp as to be contradictory in their implications. No set of conceptual tools can bridge the gap between philosophical positions supportive of rights to well-being and those hostile to such rights, but I believe some headway can be made.
Let us begin, then, from the relatively uncontroversial logical-empirical position that well-being is a prerequisite to human agency and is a coequal of freedom in this regard; that is, well-being and freedom are each necessary but not alone sufficient. Then we must ask, What sort of moral right to well-being might be persuasively argued, particularly in the hostile American context? As Maurice Cranston suggests, "the standard way of justifying a moral right is to demonstrate that it has been earned." Let us see what we can make of this. It is not unreasonable to assume that a society can agree on the rough limits of basic material needs within the context of its time and culture. Federal guidelines about dietary needs and the proportion of household budgets appropriately allotted to these needs represent a working attempt to do this. Some aspects of these needs are universal, like the need for protein, while others are time or culture bound, such as what sources of protein—fish or fowl or insects—are suitable. With respect to these needs, let me suggest a rule: Those who contribute to the product of society shall in return have secured the resources for meeting these needs. Stated differently, justice in the distribution of basic goods resides in reciprocity: goods in return for contributions. This formulation of earning rights fits the dominant "work ethic" in the United States. Those who consciously strive to help themselves and their households by working should receive in return for their efforts the goods necessary for meeting basic material needs.
Such a formulation raises the issue of how to measure contributions to the social product. Somewhat reluctantly, I propose to use
GNP, or more simply, paid labor, as the index of the social product. In moral terms this is a needlessly restrictive conception, for the social product may be reasonably thought to imply the result of more than earnings-generated labor. Parents assuredly contribute to the social product by rearing children, homemakers contribute through their household activity, and hospital volunteers and struggling artists contribute as well. But even though many of these contributions are as or more important than some activities of the paid labor force, within American political culture at this point in time, only income-producing work has a realistic chance of being accepted as earning socioeconomic rights. Since my purpose is to show how systematic social program protection can be compatible with existing American values, I have made the pragmatic choice: Those who contribute to the social product earn rights to support for basic needs in the face of social hazards. (The choice of GNP as an index of the social product also raises the issue of how paying jobs can be made available to all those who want to contribute and thus earn socioeconomic rights. I devote considerable attention to this matter in chapters 6 and 8.)
The principle of reciprocity in the earning of socioeconomic rights must be complemented by provisions to extend socioeconomic rights on the basis of need to people who are physically unable to work and to those who should not work, including children.
This linkage between rights to resources and duties to produce creates a tight fit between my conception of socioeconomic rights and Cranston's first test of human rights: practicality. The means for providing the resources these rights entail are generated at least in part by earning the rights. The conception also meets another of Cranston's tests for human rights: paramount importance. The benefits these rights bestow are not aimed at equalizing income or assuring that everyone has a videorecorder. Instead they focus on those basic material resources that by general agreement are deemed to be prerequisites to full human agency.
The conception of socioeconomic rights I am proposing, however, departs from Cranston's third criterion, universality, in two respects. First, the resources to be provided would vary from one society to another. I would not expect Tanzania to support basic needs in the same way the United States might. As Michael Walzer
says: "rights beyond life and liberty . . . do not follow from our common humanity; they follow from shared conceptions of social goods; they are local and particular in character." In fact, the underlying justifications for rights—life and liberty included, Walzer notwithstanding—may be of little interest beyond the frontiers of Western culture. There are ways of recognizing human dignity apart from rights. Second, these socioeconomic rights would be extended only to participants in the paid labor force. They do not arise simply from being human, and they are thus not human rights, nor even what Beveridge called citizen rights. They are, with exceptions, producers' rights. Again, such restrictions are based on a pragmatic assessment of the kind of socioeconomic rights American political culture will support.
Though distributed somewhat more narrowly than Walzer's counterparts, such socioeconomic rights do fit his conception of independent spheres of justice and autonomous distributive criteria for these spheres. Holding modest consequences for the essential character of many spheres of social life, my suggestion is a fairly conservative one. For instance, the market remains the primary device for production and distribution decisions. Although the latter are constrained with respect to basic resources, a wide range of goods and services would continue to be distributed through the market. And matters such as the criteria for office or the relative autonomy of family and religious life would remain largely unaffected. It is generally the case that changes in one feature of an interdependent social system will have repercussions for other features, and it is not clear how far the ripples of these socioeconomic rights would reach or how high their crests might be. It does seem unlikely that they will precipitate anything remotely resembling simple equalities.
This conception of socioeconomic rights does not allow for private claims of one individual randomly on another or others. The indigent malcontent on the street corner has, by virtue of these rights, no immediate claim on the money in the pockets of passersby for his medical care. He does, under certain circumstances involving prior or concurrent contributions to the social product, have a
valid claim—a right—to a portion of the resources that government has already removed (or might remove) from the social product and authoritatively allocated to the support of such problems. That is, contributions to production develop a claim against the public allocation process, not directly or randomly against other citizens. Government, in turn, derives the resources to be allocated to meeting basic needs by taxes approved by elected officials. As I will argue later, payroll taxes are a particularly appropriate vehicle.
Second, these socioeconomic rights do not involve simply redistributing resources vertically from rich to poor. Significant socioeconomic leveling seems unlikely in the United States, and the egalitarian results of any such efforts would likely be short-lived. But the principal intention and result of programs based on this conception of socioeconomic rights is horizontal redistribution, the shifting of resources over an individual's life cycle to meet episodic social hazards. In this, my proposals follow the example of social security and most existing social insurance programs.
Three categories of social hazards would trigger resource assistance. First are episodic needs for income maintenance and medical care that result from disabling injuries or illnesses, childbirth, and aging. In these cases the conditions can be defined physiologically, and resources in the form of income maintenance and group medical insurance can usually be productively applied. Social security now provides reasonably adequate substitute income for a large portion of our aging and disabled populations. But current retirement eligibility and benefit rules create government funding problems. SSI covers additional cases of both retirement and long-term disability less generously, and except for social security recipients (Medicare) and the extremely poor (Medicaid) the medical-care aspects of illness, childbirth, and non-work-related short-term disability remain uncovered. (Workers' compensation provides assistance with respect to job-related injuries.) Under a theory of socioeconomic rights, then, the category of physiological hazards covered by social insurance would be expanded.
Unemployment represents a more troublesome hazard. Income maintenance during short periods of unemployment (say, up to a month) could be covered by social insurance in nearly the same fashion as income maintenance for short-term illness or injury. But chronic or extended unemployment and resulting resource inade-
quacy present problems beyond income maintenance, and traditional unemployment insurance does not address the fundamental difficulties:
Social insurance, however, has not been effective in correcting long-term chronic poverty. The contribution/benefit orientation of a social insurance system automatically leaves uncovered those who cannot contribute and pays small benefits to low contributors. . . . For this reason, social insurance programs can do little to alleviate existing poverty, however effective they may be in preventing households from falling into poverty if their normal flow [of income] is interrupted.
But once we are willing to credit concurrent contributions, not just past ones, this obstacle to full participation is overcome. Public programs that offer earned benefits while expanding incentives, opportunities, and capacities for self-support are the sorts of enterprises we should turn to for helping impoverished households merge with the socioeconomic mainstream. Just as students learn from daily application and earn their grades and scholarships, so too the unemployed who attend meaningful training programs could earn maintenance benefits. This emphasis on training and education to facilitate labor market participation nicely reflects Americans' traditional tendency to rely on education, frequently as an alternative to other social programs. Additionally, disadvantaged individuals who are employed might thereby earn specific social-merging program benefits that would supplement their market rewards.
Problematic episodes that shatter ties between a household's dependents and their major wage earner form a third hazard category. These episodes more obviously raise troubling issues about the manner of vesting socioeconomic rights than do the two preceding categories. As social programs have expanded in this century, it has become general practice that they serve households. For example, many programs provide the primary beneficiary with additional allowances based on the number of dependent household members—a characteristic that no doubt contributes to Ronald Dworkin's perceptions of program benefits as policies rather than rights. But when the wage earner through whom benefit eligibility has been derived breaks off from the household, eligibility issues arise. Children, as a group that our society thinks
should not work, are already covered by my conception of socioeconomic rights. But eligible workers also leave behind noneligible working-aged adults—generally unemployed or marginally employed spouses, most of whom are women and many of whom are parents as well. Since their situations represent problematic episodes of a severity similar to those introduced above, I will later argue that some forms of earned protective response need be made available to them.
In practice, then, the socioeconomic rights I am proposing draw on five principles. First, social programs ought—as much as possible—to be based on reciprocity; those who contribute to the social product may in turn draw on that product when social hazards confront them. Second, social program assistance should generally be aimed at supplementing recipient households' efforts at self-support. Third, programs should be inclusive; while programs need not benefit recipients equally, those who face a social hazard for which benefits are accorded and have made whatever prior or concurrent contribution is required should have similar access to programs. Fourth, we should rely insofar as possible on social insurance for meeting the needs of those confronting various social hazards. And fifth, social merging programs that incorporate features similar to those of social insurance are preferable to public assistance efforts.
Socioeconomic Rights and Distributive Justice
Any notion of socioeconomic rights amounts to at least a partial concept of distributive justice. The concept I have introduced is partial, covering only the most basic material resources. In examining how this concept compares with American beliefs about distributive justice, I will draw heavily on Jennifer L. Hochschild's What's Fair? American Beliefs About Distributive Justice (Harvard University Press, 1981).
Hochschild conducted in-depth interviews with a small number of respondents, who differed in income and other background characteristics, in order to probe Americans' thoughts about the fairness of the existing distribution of income and other resources.
From these interviews, Hochschild distinguished three domains of life—social (family, school, local community), economic or workplace, and political—and several criteria of substantive justice: strict equality, need, investment, results, ascription, and procedural principles such as lotteries or free consent. While some respondents had consistent conceptions of distributive justice, most of her respondents held beliefs that changed from one domain to another. Briefly, egalitarian criteria—strict equality, need, and investment in the form of effort—prevailed in the social domain; differentiating criteria—investment, results, ascription, and procedures such as free consent or social Darwinism—were applied in the economic domain; and egalitarian criteria were used with respect to most areas of public life—including matters of welfare and social policy.
Hochschild's central discovery is that the nature of the domain, rather than the respondent's socioeconomic status, ideology, or other characteristic is the primary determinant of judgments of fairness. But some of her subsidiary findings are equally interesting for my purposes. Her respondents suffer considerable ambivalence about their beliefs in part because, despite liberalism's separation of the political and economic domains, many issues of well-being relate to both. For instance, in some situations her respondents were uncertain whether to apply the differentiating norms of the marketplace (treating a person as a fellow worker) or the egalitarian norms of the political domain (treating a person as a fellow citizen). Additionally, while respondents initially trotted out fairly standard tenets of classical liberalism, as the conversations continued they frequently offered more egalitarian views.
Specifically, most respondents supported selected public efforts—providing jobs being the most popular—to alleviate poverty, which they tended to perceive as a consequence of societal structure. Rich and poor alike, they "support much more equality than they realize, as long as it is couched in terms of need, investments, or results—anything except equality per se." This conclusion presents some interesting challenges to any proposals concerning socioeconomic rights. One might expect to find public opinion generally favorable toward public social provision, but only as long as the policy is not based on the most general and obvious moral appeal—economic redistribution in accordance with the equality of basic human material needs.
No comparable study has been made of elite values and attitudes, and available studies offer contradictory interpretations of elite beliefs. There is reason to imagine that public-sector elites apply egalitarian beliefs similar to those Hochschild's respondents apply to the political domain; however, there is also reason to suspect the limited utility of addressing appeals for equality to elites. So the importance of relating socioeconomic rights to other values probably holds with respect to American elite culture as well. Accordingly, my conception of socioeconomic rights makes minimal reference to egalitarian appeals and relies instead on other criteria of distributive justice—such as investments and need—that enjoy wider support. In particular, the notion of earned rights to basic resources fits the American elite's preferences for rewarding work and reducing relative inequalities through securing minimum thresholds. In order to reveal the points of conflict and compatibility between this conception and the various norms of distributive justice examined by Hochschild, let us consider a series of norms that start from an egalitarian position and become progressively more differentiating.
My conception of socioeconomic rights does not realize strict equality either procedurally or subtantively. Procedurally, not all people are treated equally because the necessity to earn benefits by labor-market participation is set aside for people who are physically unable to work or whom society would not have work. Further, people who do not contribute in acceptable ways fail to earn these rights. This deviation from strict equality is a practical political necessity required to bridge the worlds of inquiry and power. One consequence of this insistence on earning rights through active participation is that some people will slip through the safety net or socioeconomic floor that social programs would provide, either because they are unwilling to cooperate, or fail to understand how to cooperate, or perhaps never hear of the opportunity.
Substantively, the most obvious deviation from the criterion of strict equality lies in the restriction of these socioeconomic rights to basic material resources. My proposals for social programs make no effort to achieve substantive equality by redistributing resources from rich to poor. While the social merging proposals in-
volve greater vertical redistribution, the focus of these rights is restricted to basic material goods, which means that the limits of this redistribution are reached rather quickly. The experience of other advanced industrial societies that have extensive social programs is that horizontal, or life-cycle, redistribution predominates over vertical.
In its substantive focus, my conception of socioeconomic rights is needs-driven: it aims to provide for the most basic, universal human needs when problems of resource inadequacy arise. Of course, a host of nonmaterial needs, the need for love or companionship, lie beyond the scope of these rights and beyond the capacity of modern bureaucratic governments.
More importantly, procedurally, need alone does not, in most cases, activate the provision mechanism. The basic material needs of those who do not contribute to the social product lie beyond the protective umbrella these rights offer. Only those who cannot contribute or for whom contribution is deemed undesirable are entitled to the benefits of these rights on the basis of need.
Hochschild distinguishes two categories of investments. One comprises more or less infinitely renewable investments that everyone or nearly everyone can make: effort is one such investment. The second category—specific forms of education or training, for example—includes activities or resources not equally available to all, and renewal is neither always possible nor always necessary.
Investment in the sense of effort in the labor force lies at the heart of my conception of socioeconomic rights. While many unpaid and voluntary efforts are assuredly no less important contributions to society, as a practical matter it is not likely that our political culture will consider such efforts on a par with income-generating work. This same distinction between paid and unpaid labor is used in calculating eligibility and benefit levels for social security, and it seems prerequisite to ensuring the political viability of broader social programs.
Since socioeconomic rights are to be earned through participation in the paid labor force, the efforts made by individual workers
must be measured and recorded. Again, social security provides a model: a system of individual accounts of monetary contributions arising from payroll-tax deductions.
Individual investments in the form of advanced education, Hochschild's second category, are relevant to socioeconomic rights in that such activities tend to enhance one's ability to contribute to the social product. But investments of this sort also pose problems for my conception. For in contrast to effort and exertion, which we may expect of all able-bodied adults, an advanced degree lies beyond the reach of many people. Since the needs that socioeconomic rights address are essential and universal, it would be unfair to demand that these rights be earned by achievements that only a few can realize. So while this type of investment is to be encouraged, it is unacceptable as a criterion for the distribution of crucial basic resources.
Hochschild equates the criterion of results with market achievement. In her view market achievement is to some degree attributable to factors neither so impersonal nor natural as libertarians suggest. Rather, the results of market forces represent in part the relative capacity of different individuals or groups to use government—an artificial device for libertarians—to define property, delimit appropriate employer or employee activities, or constrain markets (as through tariffs). The criterion of results then represents a mixture of what others refer to variously as achievement, merit, and desert; results in this sense also include the distributive consequences of such factors as the favorable market position that inherited wealth provides, advantages similar to, only more subtle than, the use of government by the working class to enhance material well-being through social programs. This definition of results might be seriously problematic in a work of abstract philosophy, but for our purposes it has no importantly deleterious effects.
Other scholars do not see market operations as appropriately categorized by a principle of distributive justice that focuses on outcomes. For them the market represents an example of procedural justice in the form of free consent. This consent emphasizes a natural, impersonal, and noncoercive perspective on market operations.
For our purposes, we may accept Hochschild's criterion of re-
sults as an end-oriented principle designed to justify the consequences of a system of distribution dominated by varying market influences. Both social programs and subsequent notions that these programs realize socioeconomic rights have developed as a result of the disturbing consequences market allocation has held for basic human needs. In the United States results offer the stiffest competition, in terms of the breadth and depth of their popular appeal, to my preferred criterion of exertion-type investments as a principle of distributive justice for basic material goods. In part this popularity stems from the contention of market proponents that free markets allocate rewards in proportion to contributions. However, it is indisputable that market success is not directly proportional to investments in the form of exertion and effort. Oligopolies or monopolies with respect to indispensable inherited resources and asymmetries in the distribution of narrow capacities skew the relation between effort and market rewards. For the very wealthy, minimal efforts may reap enormous rewards; for the very poor, extensive effort may not return sufficient material goods to support a household.
Under my conception of socioeconomic rights, the distribution of those basic resources essential to well-being, and therefore human agency, would be insulated from market allocation. Rather these resources would be distributed in a fashion consistent with our cultural norms—Americans should not have to turn to crickets for protein—according to exertion in creating the social product that is used to supply those resources. Exertion in this sense is a criterion for distribution that both lies within the reach of all and satisfies the familiar principle of desert being determined by effort. Nonessential goods and services, in contrast, will continue to be distributed by the results of market performance.
The distinction between those who can and cannot contribute to the social product is appropriately viewed as an ascriptive criterion for it rests on time- and culture-bound conventions. Only fairly recently, for instance, have we expected youths of fifteen to be in school. And some societies might be more inclined to include childrearing among contributions to the social product. But I have used
these distinctions to determine only the manner—exertion or need—of entitlement, not whether or in what amounts basic resources should be distributed. On these latter questions ascription is irrelevant: the conditions one is born into (gender, race, social class) should not affect one's right to basic resources.
It is extremely difficult, however, to ensure this type of equality by means of public programs in a society afflicted with sexism and racism. Even programs that are broadly inclusive, operating without regard to sexual or racial differences, cannot assure these results. Those who have suffered the most from sexism or racism are apt to be among those with the lowest stocks of personal resources—both material and intangible—to apply to meeting their needs in conjunction with supplemental public programs. I will return to this problem in chapters 4 and 6.
The preceding five criteria—equality, need, investments, results, and ascription—for distributive justice each focus on achieving a desirable outcome. Other criteria place their faith in a procedure—procedural justice—and allow the outcomes to fall as they may. A lottery, for instance, may be perceived as a fair way to distribute discrete goods (tickets to a championship game) when the demand vastly exceeds the supply. But when the goods to be distributed are basic resources—surplus food, public housing—a lottery seems less fair in that its procedures ignore characteristics of individuals that by substantive criteria—need—might be thought relevant to the distribution of the goods. No procedural system for distributing scarce material resources—lottery, free consent, social Darwinism, Pareto optimality, or competition—can ensure the sorts of outcomes with respect to basic needs that my concept of socioeconomic rights demands.
Socioeconomic Rights and American Beliefs
From this comparison of my conception of socioeconomic rights and various norms of distributive justice, two salient points emerge. First, we have in effect arrived at an altered rationale for this con-
ception: namely, consistency with the most rigorous generally applicable form of earning such rights. Persons who exert the relevant sorts of effort to produce the resources required to fulfill basic material needs will, quid pro quo, be entitled to adequate sustaining resources. For those few who are unable, or in the case of children for whom society considers such contributions premature, need alone will entitle persons to benefits.
Second, we have seen that these rights rest on criteria compatible with Americans' beliefs about distributive justice in the social and political domains, in which other people are viewed as family members or fellow citizens. Socioeconomic rights in effect link these two domains, and such linkage may be long overdue given the demise of the family as a self-sustaining economic institution. In the economic domain, where Americans typically apply investment, results, ascription, and differentiating procedures, my proposal for socioeconomic rights would create difficulties were it to include a wide range of nonessential material goods (yachts, for instance). But since these socioeconomic rights extend only to those material goods that support basic needs, they do not threaten marketplace norms. Further, an investments approach meshes with the work-ethic principle of effort and reward.
This conception of socioeconomic rights earned through a specific type of exertion might well be unnecessarily stringent for other cultures. The United Kingdom follows a citizens' rights notion that until the Thatcher government was applied so liberally in the area of medical care as to approximate a human rights conception. It is doubtful that such a practice would be supported in the United States. But in the process of moderating politically dangerous enthusiasm for meeting human needs, we must avoid as well the terrors of the workhouse that might befall an exertion-oriented conception of socioeconomic rights. I will devote attention to this problem in later chapters. For the moment let us turn to the consequences this conception of socioeconomic rights holds for related values.