Presumption of Entitlement in Distribution of Property

The NewsJournal of February 6, 2003, included a letter by Mr. Richard E. Clark.  I found the letter interesting because of its blatant disregard of the fundamental issues involved in the distribution of a nation’s or a world’s resources.  What Mr. Clark assumes as a given, namely that the wealthy are entitled to a wealth that others have no right to take from them, is a very typical position of the predestination-inspired conservative and Puritan camp.  He apparently does not realize that the entitlement to wealth is morally  problematic every bit as much as the entitlement to poverty is morally problematic. 

Moral and political philosophy since Aristotle already recognizes distributive justice and rectifying justice in matters of apportionment of wealth.  If we assume—purely hypothetically—a primal world where no one owns anything, we would have no problem to assert that, obviously, those who live in that world are entitled to equal shares of that world’s resources.  If some manage to have more resources than others, there must be a very good reason for that relative increase.  If no reason exists, we would certainly assume that unfairness has taken place in some guise or other and would seek to rectify the situation. 

That kind of attempt at social equalization has always gone on in some manner.  To Adam Smith, the invisible hand of self-interest was to be that equalizer.  One can certainly debate whether that invisible hand succeeds in equalizing.  A planned economy in the midst of an altruistically enlightened populace was the equalizer that Marx anticipated.  One can still debate whether that kind of equalizer is a possibility since none of the former East Block nations ever reached that point and were aware of not having reached that point, according to their own functionaries.  An economy with a tremendous rectifying element in the form of taxation is the case in most of the European socialist capitalisms.  Taxation applied to the income of the very wealthy seeks to equalize and thus rectify the distribution of resources of the nation for the sake of benefit to all members of the society.  Whether such a system is an ideal is, of course, also debatable. 

The fact is, however, that property per se is not a given right of anyone.  According to John Locke, the inventor of the “property” notion, property results when one mixes one’s labor with resources.  Obviously then, the farmer can have property.  The land is his or her resource. When he or she mixes with that land the labor of sowing and reaping, property in the form of crops results.  A craftsperson likewise can arrive at property by, say, mixing the blows of his or her hammer with the ore and fire, which are the resources in this endeavor. The resultant wrought-iron hook, fence, sword, or other utensil is the craftsperson’s property.  This very same philosophy underlies the notion of squatter’s rights.  If a person has spent some twenty or so years—the precise time may vary in various states—on a piece of land that actually belongs to another, one may say that the squatter’s labor mixed with the resource of the land results in the land’s being the squatter’s property, particularly if the book-listed owner has not noticed the squatter’s activity in all those years. 

If one looks very strictly at property’s being the result of one’s mixing one’s labor with resources, some modern jobs become much more ethically problematic.  What, for example, is the resource that a manager mixes with his or her labor to result in property for him or her?  His or her resources might be said to be people.  It is, however, impossible for intelligent and rational beings to be resources, simply because these beings have rights and dignity of their own; they cannot be resources—despite the somewhat ethically suspect label “human resources” for labor-coordination offices.  And this kind of “human resource” mentality arrives at frequently very wrong-headed conclusions; for example, one may think that the ultimate purpose of labor is to provide benefits exclusively to the corporation and that the interests of the laborers are secondary to the interests of the corporation.  But that is an exploitative relationship.  A rational being’s having rights and dignity of his or her own requires minimally that the corporation’s purposes and goals be thought of as equal to the individual laborer’s purposes and goals.  Under our currently common conceptual scheme, for example, a corporation’s response to tough times may be the laying off of workers, not so subtle evidence of the fact that the worker is thought of as being merely ancillary to the corporation’s purposes.  If one were to think of equalities of worth between the corporation and the laborer, one would probably entertain participatory solutions, where all workers and managers can share equally in the loss that has occurred to the corporation.  In other words, the equality of dignity of purposes would be better realized where all workers absorb loss equally, instead of a scapegoat-like dismissal of a few.

But back to the manager:  So, the manager actually derives property from no mixing of labor and resources. Instead, being in need of coordination as the rest of us proceed to mix labor and resources, we cede some of our resultant property to the manager to coordinate our efforts.  How much is appropriate for the manager’s support services, again, is a matter of discussion; one cannot assume immediately and without reflection that CEOs are entitled to six-digit salaries.  Nor, as I have just shown, have they WORKED for any of this money, simply because they have not mixed any of their labors with resources; instead, having need of their coordinating efforts, workers have employed them and have ceded some of their property to them, who are the property-less. 

If Locke’s view is the correct view of the nature of property, only producing members of the society can be propertied.  Negotiators, brokers, investment experts, bankers, attorneys, judges, governmental official, and so on are all non-producing members of a society to whom a portion of the produced property is ceded so that they can do some of the necessary support and coordination services.  That kind of payment is not entitlement in the same way as mixing one’s resources with one’s labor results in entitlement.   And the large sums of money which these coordinators are pulling in, do not give evidence of their entitlement; instead, they are more likely to give evidence of some fundamental flaws in and some immoral breaches of the trust relationship with the property-entitled members of the society, who have employed these services.

In fact, in this somewhat clearer scheme of things, one must also look askance at rights of inheritance.  While the parent may have mixed his or her labor with resources and thus has arrived at property, the son or daughter is not entitled to that wealth, not having done any such mixing of resources and labor.  The property, thus, should probably fall back to an agency—presumably the state—which re-distributes the property appropriately so as to arrive at proper distributive justice or which taxes the inheritance strongly to at least arrive at an approximation of rectifying justice.  And this is not without precedence.  Medieval kings and emperors were in the business of offering land control to nobility as a manner of buying loyalty.  For some forms of nobility, land entitlement would return to the emperor after the noble-person’s death; not all aristocratic wealth was inheritable.  And doing away with inheritance entitlement, then, also would go a long way toward making all people equal and equalized.

While this is by no means an exhaustive analysis, I would hope that at least I have shown that entitlement to wealth is not without moral and philosophical problems.  None of this wealth entitlement is obvious by intuition or divine right or common sense.  In fact, one might want to carry on this little thought experiment toward reflecting about the fact that the US has six percent of the world’s population and uses sixty percent of the world’s resources.  This North-American scheme of self-serving delusions may have to be opened up for some very serious and sincere examination if we are to live in this world collaboratively with and not martially repressive of its other inhabitants.

published in the NewsJournal of February 13, 2003, on page 5A under the category "Community Voices"

Reinhold Schlieper
August 27, 2002