Talking about Distributive Justice

Over at Left2Right, Elizabeth Anderson has had a very interesting series going called, "How Not to Complain About Taxes." That site, by the way, features some eminent philosophers, so it's worth checking out if you're a credentialist. Otherwise it's worth checking out for the rigorous quality of most of the arguments. I wonder if there's a connection between the two.

In the third post of the series, she argued out that since, according to Hayek, the primary function of market prices is informative, they can't possibly track moral desert. Moral desert is retrospective, while the informative function is prospective, aggregating current demand and projected future demand (take that last part with a grain of salt, my knowledge of Hayek is quite limited). In a broad sketch, her argument ran that since market prices have nothing to do with desert, one can't argue that he or she deserves (in a moral sense) their pre-tax income, so that can't be asserted as a reason, in and of itself, why taxes should be lower.

Today, both halves of the duo at Marginal Revolution responded with criticism. I'm not sure I understood Alex Tabarrok's response, and if I do, I think he goes too far and ignores too many counterarguments. I accept what he says about misusing Hayek, as I have no idea about that. But I think his conclusion just doesn't follow from some of what he says. Here are the second and last paragraphs, which are all I want to discuss, though it can't hurt to read all four.

Hayek argued that the concept of social or distributive justice was "empty and meaningless." Anderson tries to use this argument, which she explains well, to suggest that any idea of libertarian or free market justice must also be empty and meaningless. Hayek, however, did not argue against rules of just conduct, "those end-independent rules which serve the formation of a spontaneous order." Among such rules may be Nozickian or Lockean rules of voluntary exchange.

True, it is an accidental fact that I live in a time and place where my skills are highly prized. In this sense, I do not deserve my income (i.e. my income is in part a function of things beyond my control). But I do deserve my income in the sense that it was acquired justly and to take justly acquired earnings may be an injustice.

Essentially, the problem with this response is that it ignores the most basic egalitarian arguments. What an egalitarian can do is grant that your income was acquired justly in the same limited sense that Tabarrok uses, namely that no particular person was wronged by the actions you took in getting the income. This doesn't cut off a Dworkinian argument that distribution should be endowment insensitive but ambition sensitive. That is, it seems unjust to many people that the "life chances" (broadly understood) of many people are dependent upon their birth situation in terms of both socio-economic stauts and genetic heritage. Now my argument here is also too fast and ignores various counterarguments, especially some in Anarchy, State and Utopia against Rawls, but this is only a blog post, not a book on the virtues of liberal egalitarianism versus libertarianism. But I just feel that Tabarrok's conclusion is undeserved, and taking his last line as clearly established is an error.

Oh, everyone should read Marginal Revolution, there's always good stuff there.

Update: Will Wilkinson has a great post arguing on the libertarian side of this debate, it's much better than what I wrote. In particular, this paragraph is key:

How close does Anderson get to committing the Fundamental Redistributivist Error (the FRE), which is the very common but nonetheless logically horrifying error of inferring from the fact that P doesn't deserve x to the conclusion that there exists someone who is morally authorized strip x from P. Somebody ought to write an article about the manifold expressions of FRE titled "How Not to Argue For Taxes."
That's not to say that there is no argument for someone or something being able to redistribute from P in a morally proper manner, but Will is clearly right that just showing non-desert doesn't get you there. Of course, Anderson doesn't say this either, since her topic is about fallacious arguments against taxation, she hasn't made her positive case for taxation yet.