It’s October 2020 and 14-year-old Kyah made her bed for the night: a blanket folded on the floor in the shape of a mattress. When morning comes, she’ll fold the blanket back up and repeat the process, living out of only what she can fit in a packed bag because “at this point, there’s no reason to keep unpacking it,” she told PBS.
The pandemic has left her single mother unemployed, so Kyah and her family all share a small room in someone else’s home. Kyah told PBS, “I couldn’t imagine living like this forever and I don’t want to live like this forever”.
Only a month later, Kim Kardashian West rented out a private Polynesian island for her 40th Birthday party. She flew everyone out in a private jet and allots an individual villa, which costs $107,846 a night, to each guest. Kim celebrated with her friends, wearing a $20,000 Birthday outfit. According to Insider, in total, she easily spent over $2.3 million on the five-day party.
This is the image of America in the absence of sufficient redistribution of wealth. And, with 150 million Americans predicted to be in a state of “extreme poverty by 2021,” according to the World Bank. This is the image of immense injustice.
The jarring disparity between these two scenarios’ simultaneous existences seems far more characteristic of a dystopian society than of a developed country that is supposed to be a democracy. And while it’s tempting to submit to the narrative that this economic stratification and inequality of wealth is simply “how it is,” it is vitally important to recognize that this is a problem that can easily be solved through redistribution of wealth via taxes on a federal level.
But would that be just?
Through a utilitarian lens, the answer is a clear “yes.” According to Hagan and Bloomberg, moral claims for redistribution are empirically backed by data that overwhelmingly stand in favor of taxation. Alarmingly, in one year alone, billionaires gained enough money to effectively end poverty once and for all. Afterward, they would still have enough money left to then “end poverty” another six times over.
In this context, a Utilitarian would be compelled to vehemently support taxation for the purpose of redistribution because ending poverty would undoubtedly do the best for the most amount of people — hundreds of millions of people.
For instance, poverty extensively harms the individual, especially regarding children’s health. As “family income is a key determinant of healthy child development”, both mental and physical health is greatly compromised when children grow up impoverished, according to a 2007 article published in Paediatr Child Health.
Thus the utilitarian doctrine would affirm that taxation for the purpose of redistribution is moral because it protects the health of millions, which must outweigh a person’s claim to the money.
This notion of taxation then being moral is further strengthened through assessing the implications of poverty in terms of democracy and how they would be addressed through redistribution.
Research by the Urban Institute using data from the Longitudinal Panel Study of Income Dynamics concludes that a primary concern surrounding the wealth gap should be the education gap that it proportionately creates.
Where education is supposed to create a citizenry that is capable and enthusiastic to be the body for democracy, instead, disparities in wealth have led education to become another means of proliferating a feedback loop of social injustice.
This lack of civic engagement was very clearly reflected in 2014, with the Census Bureau reporting that “up to 75.5% of those very lowest-income families didn’t vote.”
Given that voting is the very basis on which democracy stands and the key to promoting democratic principles of equal representation, combatting the wealth gap would be conducive to a stronger democracy.
Thus it would follow that because the redistribution of wealth promotes education, education cultivates civic engagement, civic engagement fosters democracy, and democracy prevents violent conflict and war. One could even go as far as to suggest that billions of lives could be saved through this process of taxation for the redistribution of wealth.
Thus, taxation for redistribution would likely be deemed moral under any Utilitarian calculus because even critics must concede that taxation doesn’t harm the rich nearly as much as poverty harms the poor. After all, it would be impossible to spend that much money anyway.
Also in support of redistribution, Rawlsian philosophy provides 2 main reasons why taxation would be completely just. First, Rawls would argue that the excessively wealthy’s money is not entirely their own and that they gained such wealth from aspects of their being which they didn’t choose or work for, according to Cernohan and the Canadan Journal of Philosophy.
Thus, one will never entirely deserve their wealth because it will always, at least in some part, be an accumulation of a person’s gender, upbringing and environment — none of which were their choosing.
If we then extend this to modern day wealth inequality, the argument would follow that the multimillionaires and billionaires of the world have an obligation to the less fortunate members of their society. Even if they didn’t explicitly consent to an agreement, they still benefit and gain their wealth from being a part of a shared society. Therefore, they have somewhat of a contractual obligation to return that benefit.
The second aspect of Rawls’ philosophy, which supports redistribution, is the veil of ignorance, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. In this hypothetical, individuals separate themselves from their present identities and view the world/act as if they didn’t know anything about who they were (Oxford ).
In that case, he suggests that people would make decisions that support the least well off because, in the thought experiment, they could very well end up being a part of that group, according to (Oxford).
It makes sense that under the veil of ignorance one would advocate for redistribution of wealth via taxes because A. Statistically they are more likely to be impoverished than to be a billionaire and B. Even if they are a billionaire, they’ll certainly have enough money to still be wealthy after being taxed.
Thus, the positive impact on the currently disadvantaged far outweighs the negative impact on the über wealthy, and therefore further justifies such redistribution.
One key point of opposition emerges from Libertarian advocacy for individual rights. Libertarianism likens taxation to slavery by a line of reasoning which essentially claims that people ought to have ownership of their money to protect their freedom, according to Feser.
While individual rights should undoubtedly be considered in decision making and preferably be protected, Aristotle reasons that individual rights are more situational, in that at some point, they may be put on hold, according to Swanson.
Realistically, this is reflected in modern governments; Even democracies have an obligation to at some points overlook individual rights. The bright-line is that they should never do so if they can avoid obstructing those rights.
Another point of pushback finds its roots in Locke’s emphasis on a human’s inherent right to property. He argues that people have a right to own property without it being stolen away from them, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy. However, Locke has conditions to how far property rights can justifiably extend.
His first stipulation is that people can only claim their right to property if that property was obtained by just means, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. This, in some ways, distinguishes taxation on the excessively wealthy from being an obstruction of property rights because gaining such large amounts of money often requires exploitation and cheating.
Locke’s second stipulation is that people only have this right protected when there is sufficient property left for others, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. This fully exempts taxation from being an obstruction of property rights because the entirety of the issue is that there is not enough money left for others (and this is why poverty is so vastly present).
Whether or not one views taxation for the purpose of redistribution of wealth to be something they full-heartedly support, they must at least make the concession that it is just. After all, if justice is “giving each their due,” how can one truly claim that a billionaire deserves luxury while those who are impoverished deserve to suffer without recourse?