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.