Whether egalitarians wish for a perfectly even “distribution” of income or something closer to even (e.g. Rawlsians), one thing most have in common is that they only favor particular forms of redistribution. In particular, egalitarians are often focused on two very narrow areas: (1) where we will be doing the redistribution, and (2) what we will be redistributing. I’d like to comment on the first only. In regard to the second, the focus of egalitarians is on income and not other things. This should be strange because what matters is happiness and overall well-being, not income differences across people. Egalitarians couldn’t be troubled thinking about what sorts of inequalities are the ones that matter, so we just get rote income redistribution, which not only does not achieve the goals on its own merits, but it very likely exacerbates the other kinds of inequality that are perhaps even more important. But that is for another day’s discussion.
Discussions of income distribution typically focus on the redistribution of income at the national level (though at finer levels we also see it, but it usually takes the form of indirect distribution by taxing in proportion to wealth and providing public goods unequally). The point however is that they never take place at an international level, not at least among the mainstream. So, when someone is ardently making the case to take Wintercow’s income so that someone making $20,000 per year can elevate their consumption levels, they are claiming that in relative terms, the person making 25% of Wintercow’s income is deserving of charity. But this ignores the fact that this poor American family would be in the richest 5% of the people walking the earth. Average world income is roughly $10,000 and over a billion people live on something less than $500 per year. If there is a case to redistribute resources to needier people, clearly it is the poor and sick outside the rich countries. Virtually no one in rich countries would be the recipient of redistributed income, in fact they ought to be taxed too.
The second issue in terms of where the redistribution happens is thinking about intertemporal issues. If we are to aim for true egalitarianism, then income ought to be distributed from the richer generations to the poorer. If the future is anything like the last 200 years, and I have every reason to believe it will be, then you can be assured that future generations will be richer than current generations. Thus, for consistency, we ought to transfer resources from our children to us. While this will make the current folks in the Administration happy as they run debt into the $13 trillion range, it also might make some other people unhappy. For example, if you care about Global Warming, the egalitarian ethic requires that we do nothing about it – as future generations will be much better able to handle whatever costs Global Warming imposes on them.
Why do we not see such consistency among the egalitarians? It has to be the case that pop-egalitarianism is not founded on any underlying principle. At best is seems to be based on some availability envy. But I call this Tribal Egalitarianism because it has to be the case that people are not focused on a “more just” outcome (especially when we learn that efforts to redistribute more often than not do not make improvements toward this notion of justice), rather they are focused on power and status – and that can only be a relevant concept in smaller tribes, not on an international scale (at least not as strongly) and certainly not among people that do not yet exist. You see, the egalitarians want to see who they are stealing from. They want to make a point that there is something dirty and wrong about being more successful or lucky. They want to make a point that even if they do not take your income, they have the power to take your income, so that you should be grateful that Big Brother lets you keep as much as you can. I’ll be persuaded that the motivations are otherwise when I see a more consistent egalitarian position taken, but I won’t hold my breath waiting for that my brother.