Is Fixing Inequality A Matter of Justice?

Release Date
February 18, 2014


Justice Poverty & Inequality

The question of how to address poverty in the United States is complicated. Steven Horwitz, chair of the department of economics at St. Lawrence University, and Jeffrey Reiman, professor of philosophy and religion at American University, debate the level of government assistance that should be given to help the poor.
In this clip, Prof. Horwitz suggests that the least amount of government necessary should be involved in alleviating U.S. inequality. He discusses the use, for example, of charitable donations from private entities as a way to help the poor without government involvement.
Prof. Reiman, in contrast, suggests that poverty and inequality is a matter of justice. That is, everyone is entitled to a certain standard of living, a certain level of equality in outcome. He argues that charity hurts the dignity of the recipient. When it is a gift, the recipient is made to feel that he does not deserve the charity, that he is made lower than the giver. Instead, he argues, assistance given to the poor should be something they receive because they have a right to it. They should not have to feel that it is undeserved. This is an interesting philosophical question tucked inside a larger debate about the role of government in helping the poor. What do you think?

Libertarians for a Guaranteed Minimum Income? [podcast]: The Cato Institute talks with Matt Zwolinski about an interesting alternative to the welfare state.
Will Private Charity Be Enough? [article]: Daniel Shapiro of Bleeding Heart Libertarians contests the thesis of the above podcast
Charity Begins With Wealth Creation [article]: John Stossel writing for Reason on how to bring about more charity.
The Costs of Public Income Redistribution and Private Charity [essay]: James Rolph Edwards of the Ludwig von Mises Institute tackles the hard numbers behind a sensitive topic

Is Fixing Inequality A Matter of Justice?
BRANDON TURNER: So let me put a question to you, Professor Horwitz. Is there a role for government to play in the alleviation of poverty, ideally? So, in other words, sort of, for writing up a treatise on political philosophy, what role does government play in alleviating the plight of the least well off? And then, attached to that, is there a role for the government to play in 2012 America? So this particular government—is there a role that it can play—a positive role it can play?
STEVEN HORWITZ: A couple of things. I mean, I think that we can imagine a world, perhaps, where the role of government is minimal. And this is a point that of course libertarians have disagreed on. We have from more anarchist ones at one end who think that all of those services can be provided through the market or through civil society organizations—synagogues and churches and mutual aid societies and all that—to classical liberal types who would argue that government perhaps has a role to provide something like a minimum income floor or the like. I think those are all within bounds as a kind of libertarian position on what the role of government should be.
So, again, if we’re going to write up that treatise on political economy, I think it depends upon—differences among libertarians will play themselves out in how they see that. We can have Rothbard kind of on one end and Hayek on another, and those are all in play. So, do we need government to solve those problems? I’d like to think we can do with the least government possible to solve those problems. For me, the most interesting question is, let’s see what happens when we get government out of the way, and see how well people do, and see what we’re left with as a real problem of poverty. And then think about what kind of ways there are to deal with it.
JEFFREY REIMAN: I am very dubious about the idea that we can eliminate government here. I mean here’s one thing: Steve talks about charitable organizations, mutual aid, and so on. This is something that’s always surprised me about libertarians, because after all, if you say that this is charity, then you make the recipient—in a certain sense—is diminished. That person receives the free charity of other people who are better off. If I’m right and inequality or some degree of inequality is a matter of justice, then it shouldn’t be rectified by charity.
Charity means I give freely what I have out of my generosity. Justice means I give what I owe, what people have a right to, and that I believe treats people with greater dignity than charity. Now that’s not to say that welfare programs treat people with greater dignity. It’s to say that the idea that you do it by law, that you say these people have a right, treats them with dignity. And of course you should follow through on that.