Political action in representative republics has been defined over the course of the last several hundred years by the interpretation of classical and enlightenment principles. Among them are liberty, equality, and justice. These principles, deemed "humanistic" in that they recognize inalienable human rights, are deistic in origin, although their implementation has also relied on contractarian and consequentialist rhetoric. Distributive Justice is the belief that it is within the government's purvue to manage the wealth of society, and redistribute it when moral and necessary so that everyone in the society may enjoy the benefit of equal opportunity. This system has been widely implemented, and one is lead to ask if it is effective. This philosophy is the brainchild of Harvard Professor John Rawls and has received praise and criticism for its treatment of government, civil society, and human rights.
Rawls' ideas are predicated on two normative standards, which he refers to as moral powers. These are "a capacity for a sense of justice and... A conception of the good." A sense of justice he describes as being "the capacity to understand, to apply, and to act from the public conception of justice which characterizes the fair terms of cooperation." This sense expresses "a willingness...to act in relation to others on terms that they also can publicly endorse." His conception of the good includes "a conception of what is valuable in human life." Rawls sets himself up for potential criticisms, most notably from classical liberals, by also introducing the concept of a comprehensive doctrine.
A comprehensive doctrine is an ideology or political methodology that is self-contained, has its own metaphysical principles and draws conclusions from its own premises. For example, Muslim fundamentalism accepts as a given that there is no God but Allah, and that Mohammed is his prophet. Similarly, the Austrian School of Economics, the basis for modern libertarianism, is based on the praxiological premises of Ludwig Von Mises that hold that all members of a society are independent and rational actors who seek to meet their individual ends via the context of civil society. The comprehensive doctrine of Rawls is based on the premise that "the fundamental political relationship of citizenship... [is] a relation of citizens within the basic structure of society, a structure we enter only by birth and exit only by death [and]...a relation of free and equal citizens who exercise ultimate political power as a collective body."
Distributive justice, in the opinion of John Rawls, is based on his perception of fairness. He sees political justice as having three features. First, "it is a moral conception worked out for a specific kind of subject, namely, for political, social, and economic institutions." This he sees as a recursive, trans-generational system where political, social and economic institutions are complementary.
Secondly, the view is freestanding. This he does so as to shield the polity from the necessity of adopting one ideology. For example, Canadian society is based on the principle of a government that not only represents its people, but is responsible for them as well. People who do not share this doctrine of "responsibility" cannot accept it as a premise from which one can derive the a theory of distributive justice.
Lastly, "its content is expressed in terms of certain fundamental ideas seen as implicit in the public political culture of a democratic society. This public culture comprises the political institutions of a constitutional regime and the public traditions of their interpretation." At first glance, this might seem to contradict the second principle, which requires justice to be freestanding, thereby robbing it of context, as a democratic republican regime in which a politically empowered electorate acts reasonably to promote their interests is no more intuitive than the praxiology of Mises, who opposes distributive justice as a form of tyranny. However, these characteristics are true of Rawls' society and as his work is not only a philosophical but a political one as well, he accepts them as a given.
Rawls sees distributive justice as being a result of social, political and contractarian arrangements in the context of several different systems of political thought. These systems all share the normative standards that he espouses: they all value freedom of thought and the ability of all members of society to partake in public life. Rawls sees the two principles that refine the notion of justice as:
I. Each person has an equal right to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties which is compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for all,
II. Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions. First, they must be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second, they must be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society.
The conception of liberties that Rawls advocates is one of "positive" rights, also known as entitlements. This idea was posited first by socialists who wished to redefine the popular conceptualization of liberalism at the end of the 20th century. This schism remains, and people who believe in the original conceptualization of freedom or "negative" rights are known as classical liberals. For instance, Rawls would argue that someone has a right to food, clothing, shelter, and an education, as these things engender equality of opportunity. The government would act as a moral agent of society in providing these. A classical liberal would argue, contrarily, for what is known as the Law of Equal Freedoms, a concept developed by 19th century sociologist Herbert Spencer. This law, which is in fact the ancillary moral argument of Rawls' system, holds that "every man may claim the fullest liberty to exercise his faculties compatible with the possession of like liberty by every other man." Colloquially, this has been re-stated as the idea that "my rights end where your nose begins," and vice versa. For example, if a society sought to provide a destitute person with his Rawlsian rights, they might choose to levy a tax and take money from someone who wished to do with his money as he pleased. To a classical liberal, to forcibly re-distribute the wealth of a person or imprison him for refusing to part with his wealth would constitute a violation of his liberties.
Critiques of distributive justice can be grouped into two categories, moral arguments and utilitarian arguments. Most of Rawls' outspoken critics are libertarian. The first and most critically regarded of these arguments is the utilitarian argument of Robert Nozick, who is technically regarded as anarchist, anarcho-capitalist, or anarcho-individualist. For many years, Nozick and Rawls worked side by side at Harvard University, and his seminal work, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, is a direct response to Rawls. Nozick makes a utilitarian argument, questioning Rawls' assumption that redistribution mitigates inequality in a way that is to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged. Nozick argues for a minimalist state that insures negative liberties, namely, a "Night Watchman" state "limited to the functions of protecting all its citizens against violence, theft, and fraud, and to the enforcement of contracts, and so on..." This state, he argues, provides the greatest amount of liberty to the most people instead of penalizing everyone through the creation of a bureaucracy entrusted with the rehabilitation of the disadvantaged.
Fellow Nobel Prize winner James Buchanan explores the matter deeper, presenting the notion of "public choice" in economics. This idea holds that any political system that is entrusted with too much power will eventually become corrupt and fail, as "rent-seekers" who see greater utility in seeking their ends through the machinations of government than through economic means will develop methodologies to redistribute income to themselves; this society would take from everyone and give to those pernicious enough to use the government to plunder them. Buchanan makes the utilitarian argument that government, when…