Elizabeth Anderson has been posting for some time at Left2Right on taxation and property rights, arguing that saying 'it's mine', 'I have a natural property right to it', and 'I deserve it' are not good arguments against taxation, because, respectively, saying something's mine does not give you an absolute entitlement to it, absolute natural property rights are unjustified because they are not particularly economically productive and tend towards contract feudalism, and market distributions are not the basis of desert-claims. I'm not sure I endorse all the things that she claims, but her discussion of Locke is particularly good, even if she does leave out the 'enough and as good' and 'nothing can be left to spoil' provisos on acquiring natural property rights he gave, which would reinforce her point, because this would emphasize the way in which even natural property rights are best restricted for the common good (or rather, the good of individuals who do not yet hold property). In general, the idea that liberals should reclaim Locke from his unfortunate association with Nozick, who definitely does oh so surprisingly forget about the restrictions on natural property rights, and the libertarian fringe more generally, putting him back at the heart of the liberal pantheon where he belongs, is a good one (I know that Locke's views about property rights change after money is introduced, and things can't go to waste and people can work instead of starve if there isn't any property for them to appropriate, but the point is that he thinks that property rights require justification, and that any half-decent justification isn't going to leave them absolute, which makes him a liberal).
Elizabeth Anderson is generally a good thing, I think, not just because of her posts on Left2Right, which have been good when I have seen them, but because of her opposition to a trend in Anglo-American liberal political thought. Since the publication of John Rawls's 'Theory of Justice', a lot of the debate in Anglo-American liberal political thought has centred around quite abstract principles of distribution of goods, mainly because Rawls placed fairly centrally in his theory the difference principle - that the distribution of the primary social goods (income, wealth, opportunity, status and so on) should be arranged so as to be to the long run absolute advantage of the least well off group in society. Increasingly, the thought has been that distributions should be egalitarian, and the debate has focused on what the metric, in the words of Gerry Cohen, of equality ought to be, or, more simply, exactly what should we be trying to distribute equally - goods, welfare, opportunities or whatever. Personally, I'm a bit dubious about the idea that we ought to be distributing whatever we're distributing equally, but that's another post. What I'm interested in here is the idea that what distributing stuff equally means is equalizing the results of brute luck, that the metric of equality is outcomes of events over which we have no control.
This idea has much intuitive plausibility, because it ties entitlements to resources (or welfare: there is a separate argument about what the outcomes we are morally interested in are) to personal responsibility for the costs and benefits that accrue to the individual in question. If we are not personally responsible for a given cost or benefit, it is equalized, and if we are personally responsible, it is not. For example, what is says to do is, if I lose my house in a freak storm, give me a new house, and if I lose my house gambling on the stock market, nothing, because I am not responsible for not preparing against the effects of freak storms, and so shouldn't bear the costs, whereas I am responsible for gambling on the stock market, and should. Theorists who espouse these view have come to be known, perhaps somewhat pejoratively, as Luck Egalitarians, because after all, for them, the metric of equality is luck: it is just bad luck my house got destroyed by the freak storm, just as it is just good luck that I happen to be born to relatively wealthy, intelligent parents living in (what became) a comparatively nice middle class area of London, and since I have personally done nothing to produce either outcome, I am properly compensated for the costs of the first, and have no proper claim to the benefits of the second.
Anderson however, in her article 'What Is The Point of Equality?' (in 'Ethics', January 1999, just in case you a) have access to a university library with such things in it and b) cared), launched into a vituperative attack on Luck Egalitarianism, decrying it as intrusive, excessively moralizing, and demeaning, amongst other things. Again, I am not sure about all her points are fair - I think she's writing against a caricature of Luck Egalitarians at times, even if it is a caricature she is fairly entitled to draw from their basic principles - but she is very good on one point that Luck Egalitarians have generally missed, and which draws, depending on your point of view, either a disturbing or political expedient similarity between them and the free-market right. Her point is that Luck Egalitarians have left themselves no ground to criticize the costs attached to any outcome, but must take the costs which societies, at the moment, usually through the market, impose on outcomes as given (alright, this isn't strictly true, since it is brute luck that anyone lives in any given society but once this is noticed, Luck Egalitarians are embroiled in a deeper, more metaphysical difficulty, because it is brute luck that you live in a society with any given distributional system, and then all costs and benefits are a matter of brute luck, which must leave them in something of a pickle, because they have no baseline from which to assess the justice of any outcomes). This seems politically expedient if you think that left-wing distributional policies have got a bad press because they seem not to care that people make unwise and sometimes immoral choices and grant them benefits anyway, that they don't care about personal responsbility, and disturbing if you think that we ought to have some ground on which to criticise the costs which accrue to any given choice.
For example, some Luck Egalitarians have argued that people who live on the San Andreas Fault should not recieve government aid because they chose to live there, knowing there could be earthquakes (this is incoherent on the earlier argument about all distributions being brute luck, and on the consideration that they moved there knowing that government aid would be forthcoming if there were earthquakes, but I think they're all wrong, all over the place, so this doesn't seem surprising to me). Since it is option luck to build there as well as to live there, we shouldn't even be imposing building regulations on buildings in earthquake zones: it is altering the benefits that would otherwise accrue to those who built there by forcing them to build in a certain way. Of course, Luck Egalitarians can launch into a spiel about what properly constitutes option luck, so choices which we might consider coerced - under the threat of physical violence or economic deprivation, for example - no longer count as option luck, but rather as brute luck: personal responsibility is abdicated when we had no reasonable alternative. This doesn't help them though, because we can imagine cases where costs accrue to genuinely voluntary choices which are simply horrendous, and which Luck Egalitarians can say nothing about. If a law was passed saying that all non-marital sex was punishable by death, the brute/option luck distinction would be of no help: in most cases, people have pre-marital sex or cheat on their spouse not because they are coerced but because they want to, yet Luck Egalitarians would be compelled to say that we ought execute anyone who was foolhardy enough to do either of these things because they knew that was what would happen to them if they got caught. The more politically relevant case is having children: there seems to be a moral case that people ought to be given a proper opportunity to either bring up their children themselves by stopping work, or pay someone else to do it, despite the fact that jobs don't automatically pay more once you have children, or let people take much time off. The same could be said of caring for sick or elderly relatives.
I'm not saying that personal responsibility doesn't matter, and that the costs that societies impose on certain choices are never appropriate, just that we need some criteria by which to assess when it does and whether those costs are appropriate. Luck Egalitarians have alienated the possibility of doing that by focusing solely on the brute/option luck distinction, and have, in doing so, made common cause with some people that I think the academic left really ought to be avoiding (people who say the poor are poor because of their poor choices, for example, rather than because of the crappy circumstances they grew up in, or the costs that society imposes on those choices). There are some theorists who have been incorrectly labelled as Luck Egalitarians who defend, under certain conditions, the market as an appropriate distributional mechanism - Ronald Dworkin is the immediate example - but what distinguishes them from Luck Egalitarians is that they are concerned to justify the costs that the market imposes, a project which I believe fails, but which at least gives them some criteria to criticize the costs attached to distributional mechanisms, something which Luck Egalitarians have deprived themselves of the theoretical resources to do, despite the fact that we are quite properly interested in doing that criticizing.