One of the many treats of Econlib are the articles of Anthony de Jasay. Mostly renowned for his remarkable book The State, De Jasay is among the most brilliant libertarian political thinkers.

This month he has a profound article on “distributive justice.” The point he raises is a very interesting one. Conventions and laws historically build to restrain the “might is right” approach to political power. But he sees modern redistributionism as the return of “might is right”: the almighty sovereign no longer being a king, but rather a collective sovereign, blessed by majority rule. De Jasay thinks carefully on how words in politics are symbols that both cover and enable a certain kind of measure or action. His conclusion is worth quoting in full (but read the whole thing, too):

When cave man became civilised, “might is right” was gradually restrained by the rule of justice, which was almost certainly a better evolutionary strategy for groups. Nearer our own age, two loopholes open up in the restraint, and are getting larger. Both are powerfully widened by the corruption of language.

As collective choice acquires the power to make rule-making rules that supplement or replace conventional rules, it typically excludes certain options and permits others. (…) The state is called upon to protect property against all comers except against itself. This is justified by the supremacy of the public interest over rules governing property. Public interest is supreme because no argument can long sustain the proposition that the interest of the public is not supreme. Thus, an elementary sleight-of-hand using a truism pierces and widens a loophole for distributive justice to rise above the rule of ordinary justice.

The other and equally convenient loophole is created by the persistent employment of the word “equal” as a moral qualification. Thus, “equal” comes to stand in relation to “unequal”, and “equality” to “inequality”, as “good” stands in relation to “bad”, “true” to “untrue”, “faithful” to “faithless” or “just” to “unjust”. A more equal distribution of resources is eo ipso better than an unequal one, and no argument to the contrary could resist the charge of perversity or heartlessness. Distributive justice, by attempting to make the distribution of resources more equal, is serving justice.

It is the great good fortune of this somewhat shoddy doctrine that its demand coincides with what the modern form of collective choice, namely majority rule, produces, for majority rule is might disguised as right. By the same token, it is the great good fortune of democracy that its manner of awarding the control of government namely redistribution, happens to coincide with what distributive justice, a doctrine of moral superiority, demands of it. “Might is right” is back with a vengeance.