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NDPR Discussion Forum: Alan Thomas’s Republic of Equals

Welcome to the NDPR discussion of Alan Thomas’s new book Republic of Equals: Predistribution and Property-Owning Democracies, recently reviewed by James Lindley Wilson at NDPR. We have invited both Alan and James to participate, and we encourage readers to comment as well on anything related to Alan’s book or James’s review. Blurbs for each below the fold.

From the OUP blurb: The first book length study of property-owning democracy, Republic of Equals argues that a society in which capital is universally accessible to all citizens is uniquely placed to meet the demands of justice. Arguing from a basis in liberal-republican principles, this expanded conception of the economic structure of society contextualizes the market to make its transactions fair. The author shows that a property-owning democracy structures economic incentives such that the domination of one agent by another in the market is structurally impossible. The result is a renovated form of capitalism in which the free market is no longer a threat to social democratic values, but is potentially convergent with them.

From Wilson’s review: Rawls’ later writings on different economic systems raise several important questions. Most obviously: what is the difference between “welfare-state capitalism” and “property-owning democracy,” and why is the latter superior? And is there any reason to prefer property-owning democracy or liberal socialism? This book provides answers to these questions, defending the superiority of property-owning democracy (POD) to liberal socialism and to revised or idealized versions of welfare-state capitalism. Sustained argument on these fronts is welcome, given the urgency of practical questions involving the aims of reform, and the relatively little attention writers have given to POD. (This has begun to change recently.) The level of policy detail, informed by Alan Thomas’s studies of historians, economists, and political scientists, is impressive. Thomas also argues that once we accept that justice as fairness requires POD, we can better respond to some major philosophical challenges to Rawls’ theory of justice, including how best to interpret the difference principle; whether, as G.A. Cohen argued, Rawls’ theory is indefensibly inegalitarian and his conception of justice adequate to protect the basic liberties.

The reader might doubt that working out the institutional implications of the principles of justice can do much to defend the principles from challenges directed at the principles themselves. But Thomas is explicit that the institutional or “background” context within which the principles will be implemented can contribute to the holistic justification of the principles and their implications (5, 44, 64, 121, 127). In Thomas’s favor is the Rawlsian method of reflective equilibrium, which, as I mentioned, holds that the complete justification of a conception of justice requires evaluation of its institutional implications. Institutional specificity also allows us to test better the stability of a conception of justice (xviii, 104, 292). Thomas’s holism is more ambitious, however, in the justificatory work that “contextual” implications are said to do for principles that are logically prior. Thomas believes that institutional context constrains the operation of principles. Given the right context, the operation of the principles will then be more defensible. Property-owning democracy is, according to him, the right context for Rawls’ principles of justice. While his arguments on behalf of POD are thorough, and will be valuable for anyone interested in the practical implications of Rawlsian principles, I remain skeptical about Thomas’s suggestion that this conclusion helps defend the principles themselves.

2 Responses to NDPR Discussion Forum: Alan Thomas’s Republic of Equals

  1. Alan Thomas says:

    I should begin by thanking James for the exemplary care and thoroughness of his review of my book. In his generally sympathetic discussion, he confesses that he cannot get the point of the distinction between the predistribution that I take the book to exemplify and orthodox redistribution.

    I once heard Hilary Putnam tell the story of his taking to his supervisor, Hans Reichenbach, a copy of Quine’s ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’. Putnam told Reichenbach: “it is an extraordinary paper; Quine argues that the difference between the analytic and the synthetic is not a difference of kind, but one of degree.” Reichenbach looked puzzled and then replied “Hilary, is the difference between a difference of kind and one of degree a difference of kind or one of degree?”.

    If philosophy is about asking the right questions, this has always struck me as a very good question (and students of both post-War analytic philosophy in general and Putnam’s work on analyticity may well agree). So is the difference between pre-distributive and re-distributive egalitarianism one of kind or one of degree? One way of expressing James’s concern is that I seem to be present it as a distinction of kind when, in fact, it could only be a distinction of degree.

    Even those sympathetic to the enterprise of developing a property-owning democracy concur – including my colleague Martin O’Neill who is similarly sceptical that there is a deep distinction here. Significantly, this sceptical view is typically held by those “hybrid” theorists – including Martin – who take the goals of a property-owning democracy to be that of merely adding some asset based policies to the redistributive aims of welfare state capitalism. Let me set out some of the grounds for this kind of skepticism towards the distinction – construed as a difference in kind – before suggesting some lines of reply.

    First, the most obvious reading of the prefixes “pre-“ and “re-“ are temporal, but that reading obviously has little to recommend it. Yet a temporal reading seems the interpretation most clearly implied in the original texts by Rawls such as this justification for his interest in a property-owning democracy:

    “To prevent a small part of society from controlling the economy and indirectly, political life as well…. Property owning democracy avoids this, not by the redistribution of income to those with less at the end of each period…. but rather by ensuring the widespread ownership of productive assets and human capital (that is, education and trained skills) at the beginning of each period, all of this against a background of fair equality of opportunity.” (Rawls, 2001, p. 139)

    Rawls here speaks of “periods” – so it looks as if the temporal reading is mandated. Unfortunately, that does not seem to yield much by way of a distinction and at best – as James implies – it yields a weak distinction of degree and not one of kind. Why is this?

    Well, because predistributing and redistributing are both continual processes – they both go on all the time with intervals even if, if we implement a Tobin tax on all financial transactions, those intervals are going to be very short. Taxes of estates and assets are on-going and continual as are the various tax and transfer schemes that make up redistributive policies. If these two processes are temporally intertwined, how can there be a distinction of kind here? Furthermore, assets and income are clearly related: those with high incomes build up assets and returns on assets form part of income (loosely speaking). These two facts seem to point to a relatively shallow distinction of degree.

    I think there is more to be said – the most important rationale for the distinction between predistributive and redistributive egalitarianism takes it to be a question of how we model, or analyse, economic agency and is not, in my view, primarily concerned with a temporal distinction. The question is how we model what agents bring to the market for labour and the predistributivist argues that if we are developing a conception of a fair market, then we need to focus on the equalisation of the bargaining power of the agents represented in it.

    So “pre” here means: prior to market transactions where we are not restricted to temporal priority. This is a distinction in the way in which we model initial investments in agents that are prior to the transactions that they enter into with other agents. Specifically, economic rights attaching to citizenship place agents in a market position in which we strengthen their right of exit and thereby supplement their voice (to use two of Albert Hirschman’s concepts).

    I describe my view as a whole as “liberal-republican” and that includes at least the republican’s focus on institutional design. As Bob Taylor notes, recent republicans “have generally made their peace with markets, but without much enthusiasm”. (Robert S Taylor, Exit Left, OUP, 2017, p. 7) Republic of Equals departs from this usual lack of enthusiasm for markets, but like all republicans – Taylor included – it tries to develop a conception of how markets can operate in such a way to preserve their informational and resource enabling advantages while avoiding domination and exploitation. The proposal is the pre-distributive investment in agents, via economic rights attaching to citizenship as such, allow the market to operate fairly by patterning its outcomes. That is going to require (temporally continual) adjustments to the “background conditions” against which the principles of justice operate, but that temporal distinction is not the whole point of calling the view “predistributive”.

    It is particularly unhelpful to run this idea together with the temporal interpretation of the prefixes “pre-“ and “re-“ distributive: this deflationary reading of predistributionism is one that I argue against throughout the book – (you could summarise the argument as “no, this is not just about baby bonds”.) On this interpretation, we are speaking of “initial investments” in the forms of baby bonds at birth, or early years intervention, or simply education before entering the workforce. All of these are important, of course, but this is hardly the full extent of what is meant by predistribution. The more ambitious goal, as noted in the book, is to so structure market transactions – by appropriately contextualising them – as to make the domination of one agent by another structurally impossible.

    There are other arguments to be made in favor of drawing a distinction between pre- and re- distributive egalitarianism, but this seems to me the most important one.

  2. Jim Wilson says:

    Thanks, Alan, for this illuminating reply. (And thanks to David for setting up this forum for discussion.) I think the ideas of non-temporal priority, and of what citizens are entitled to bring to any particular market transaction, are both helpful in explaining the “pre” in “predistribution.”

    I do still wonder if this way of understanding “predistribution” really marks a contrast with (egalitarian) proponents of what we often call redistribution. (Of course, there are non-egalitarian proponents of redistribution, including sufficientarians, right-leaning utilitarians, and even some classical liberals. I do not doubt that the forms of redistribution supported by these proponents typically fail to meet the goals of predistribution as you explain them. These forms might have been the primary targets of Rawls’ criticisms of redistribution in “welfare state capitalism,” as you well know.) Egalitarians who support very progressive tax-and-transfer schemes presumably mean the transfers to secure to citizens the same important entitlements—such as education, options to exit abusive workplace conditions, and so on—that you say are guaranteed by egalitarian predistribution. So there may not be a sharp distinction between redistribution and predistribution, unless the former is defined in such a way as to exclude certain egalitarian goals or policy options.

    Even if what I say in the previous paragraph is correct, however, I’m not sure there’s any important disagreement between us here. You might say that using the term predistribution is an especially good way of emphasizing what ought to be the aims of what we often call redistributive policies (like tax-and-transfer), or to identify forms of redistribution that are likely to meet those aims. And none of my modest brief on behalf of redistribution denies the importance of your criticisms (in the book) of particular policies often associated with redistribution, such as universal basic income schemes. I am especially interested to hear how proponents of those schemes respond to your arguments!

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