A Rorschach Test
This exchange with "Joe the plumber" was discussed in last night's presidential debate.
"Your new tax plan is going to tax me more, isn't it?" the plumber asked [Senator Obama], complaining that he was being taxed "more and more for fulfilling the American dream."
"It's not that I want to punish your success. I just want to make sure that everybody who is behind you, that they've got a chance for success too," Obama responded. "My attitude is that if the economy's good for folks from the bottom up, it's gonna be good for everybody ... I think when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody."
My sense is that most liberals will instinctively agree with Senator Obama here. The last sentence, which I put in bold, is as good a summary of the Rawlsian notion of distributive justice as you are likely to find from a major political candidate.
Senator McCain took exception to Obama's statement, but he did not fully explained why. My guess is that McCain would agree with this passage from Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia:
The current election is in part a referendum on Rawls versus Nozick.
The term "distributive justice" is not a neutral one. Hearing the term "distribution," most people presume that some thing or mechanism uses some principle or criterion to give out a supply of things. Into this process of distributing shares some error may have crept. So it is an open question, at least, whether redistribution should take place; whether we should do again what has already been done once, though poorly.
However, we are not in the position of children who have been given portions of pie by someone who now makes last minute adjustments to rectify careless cutting. There is no central distribution, no person or group entitled to control all the resources, jointly deciding how they are to be doled out. What each person gets, he gets from others who give to him in exchange for something, or as a gift. In a free society, diverse persons control different resources, and new holdings arise out of the voluntary exchanges and actions of persons. There is no more a distributing or distribution of shares than there is a distributing of mates in a society in which persons choose whom they shall marry. The total result is the product of many individual decisions which the different individuals involved are entitled to make.