Since, being currently unemployed, it seems sensible to be financially prudent, I thought I'd work out roughly how much I spend in a year, on the assumption that I'll spend about the same amount this year. Going through my bank statements, I found that I spent, roughly, £12,556 in the last twelve months. I don't live frugally - I'm not a total hedonist, but I like a fine glass of wine as much as the next man as long as he is French, and I enjoy my food as much as the next man too, as long as he is French as well - but that doesn't seem like a lot of money to me to lead a perfectly comfortable life, especially when more than five grand of it went on university fees. I'm not saying that I couldn't have found things to spend any more money on, but I don't think that I could really claim that I had a moral interest compelling enough in having more money that the simple fact of my not having that much was a significant moral harm. Doubling my income certainly wouldn't have made my life better to the same degree that halving it would have made it worse: whatever moral interests I have in certain levels of income, above twelve thousand they don't seem to be particularly powerful.
The implication of this, that, if I am a suitably generalisable case - I'm willing to concede I'm not, but someone needs to tell me what it is I'm missing out on, so that I can go out and enjoy it - it is possible to live a reasonably comfortable life in Britain on around twelve thousand pounds a year, barring serious illness or destruction of property, seems to me quite radical. It's radical because it suggests that no-one has anything more, in the absence of serious illness or destruction of property, than at best a pro tanto and at worst a weak prima facie claim to any income they have over around twelve thousand pounds a year. It suggests this because of two little points I will, partly for simplicity, call the Parasitic Violinists and the Democrat's Insight.
The Parasitic Violinists is owed to Judith Thompson's 'A Defense of Abortion', which should be acknowledge even if I will now use it in a way which rather cuts against the original point. Thompson asks us, in the course of making what I now believe is an unsuccessful defence of abortion where she grants that the fetus has the same right to life as all human beings generically possess, to imagine waking up with a violinist symbiotically attached to our back. She claims that we are not obliged to bear the Parasitic Violinist's use of our bodies for physical support for the rest of our lives, or even nine months, even if they'll die as soon as we detach them, the polemical point being that the violinist is like a fetus with the same right to life as generically possessed by all human beings. I'm skeptical about both the analogy with fetuses and the ease with which Thompson dismisses the idea that there is a discussion to be had about the degree of sacrifice we should be required to make for the Parasitic Violinist. The point here, however, is that Thompson happily acknowledges that there are some sacrifices we are required to make for the good of others - she mentions an hour with the Violinist as obviously required, and I think a couple of weeks in bed seems fairly reasonable, in order to save the life of someone else, once circumstance has made you the only person capable of saving their life and you are so proximate to them.
Granted that that is the case, that my levels of consumption are suitably generalisable, and that typically income has diminishing marginal impact, which seems fairly uncontroversial, progressive taxation away from any grossly unequal distribution is surely, ceterus paribus, morally required. Those who gain from the redistribution are like the Violinists, whilst those who lose under it are like those on whom the Violinists are parasitic, because the goods they give up are much less important to them than the goods that are received by those who gain, just as my loss of mobility for a day, or even a week, is much less important than the life of the Violinist. As long as we acknowledge that a) there is a level above which there is no compelling moral imperative arising solely from the situation of the individual in question to grant them more goods or income, whilst below it there are such imperatives; b) above that level, income generally has a diminishing marginal impact, that is, each extra unit of income is generally worth less than the previous one; and that c) some level of sacrifice to grant goods to others is morally required, redistribution must be, ceterus paribus, mandated.
Right-libertarian might not accept this conclusion: they, it strikes me, are likely to reject the Parasitic Violinists claim, saying that I am never obliged to keep the Violinist alive. This obviously makes them morally repugnant, but there is another way to force the conclusion, which they do not have such a simple reply to. This is the Democrat's Insight, that every social system is coercive, which is of course precisely why every social system requires the consent of those who live under it. A social system which does not act, in some way, to maintain itself is not a social system at all, just as a system of laws that is not also a system of positive laws is not a system of laws at all. Yet the maintenance of a social system or the enforcement of a set of positive laws is coercive: it requires that incentives to uphold and threats against undermining or breaking the rules in question are put in place, and that is coercion.
Not only are all social systems and all sets of laws coercive, all such rules as they relate to the distribution of income are coercive, for they are rules and rules are, qua rules, coercive. Given that all systems of distribution are coercive, the right-libertarian's objection to systems of distribution which require that those successful in the market redistribute some of their income towards those less successful, which is based on this being coercion and a loss of freedom, loses most, if not all, its force. Of course progressive taxation is coercive, just as enforcing a Nozickean set of property rights is coercive too. Simply throwing around allegations of coercion is not going to get you anywhere, because what needs to be shown is that the coercion in one is more morally troubling than the coercion in the other.
The degree to which coercion is morally troubling is undoubtedly related to the moral costs of the coercion: someone who is coerced gives something up, either by giving in to the threat and thus losing whatever it is that the threat was designed to get out of them, or by holding out and thus suffering whatever was threatened. The coercion of someone who loses less in either or both of these cases is less serious to the degree that they lose less: more harm, for example, is done, all other things being equal, by my extorting ten pounds out of you than five. Thus, in order to assess how morally troubling coercion is, we need to be able to assess what the loss involved is. This immediately returns us to the claim that I am comfortable with annual consumption of around twelve thousand pounds, because that indicates that the moral loss of the coercion involved in taking from those with incomes above that is less than the moral loss of the coercion involved in not giving to those with incomes below that.
It's important to realise here that 'taking' and 'not giving' are equivalent here: the coercion, in this instance, of the right-libertarian system rests in not instituting a system which redistributes, while the coercion, in this instance, of the system which redistributes rests in not instituting a right-libertarian system. Neither of the two systems is in any sense prior to the other, and indeed, it would be better to refer to them as system A and system B, with distributions A' and B', which benefit agents A* and B* in ways a and b, so as to remove the impression, which I believe right-libertarianism depends on, that distributing goods in a way other than as the free market would dictate is redistribution and involves coercion, whereas distributing goods as the free market would is perfectly natural and does not involve coercion in exactly the same way. Right-libertarians may want to attempt to resist this move too, but they have to realise that the system of property rights they favour is a social system which mandates a particular set of costs and benefits, and as such is coercive, just as every other is, meaning that in order to justify it over some other social systems, the costs and benefits of that coercion have to be assessed.
Thus, because we have an obligation to make some degree of sacrifice, because income generally has diminishing marginal impact, and because living under a right-libertarian set of property rights does not in fact involve less coercion, progressive redistribution has a powerful moral argument in its favour. Given my experience, making sure that every adult in the UK had an income of at least twelve thousand pounds a year, and then working upwards from that, seems like a start to me.
(Substanial editing for content and clarity in the parts dealing with the Democrat's Insight, 18/10/05)