Following up last week's piece arguing in favour of redistribution, I want to reinforce a key point in that argument. Recall that the set of claims I called the Democrat's Insight argues that because all social systems are coercive, throwing around allegations of coercion without comparative assessments of the moral seriousness of that coercion isn't going to do much good. Here, I want to draw attention to an argument which should be familiar to anyone who's studied much political theory, which compares two situations, one where, in terms of numbers of acts prohibited, a huge loss of freedom has occured, but we are not particularly concerned by this loss, and another where, in terms of numbers of acts prohibited, a much smaller loss of freedom has occured, but we are very seriously concerned by it. This generates something of a paradox: loss of freedom X is a greater loss of freedom than loss of freedom Y, but loss of freedom Y is much more morally troubling than loss of freedom X.
The argument in question is Charles Taylor's, found in his piece in David Miller's 'Liberty', where he compares Albania under Hoxha, and London. In Albania, under Hoxha, there were no traffic lights, but religious worship was outlawed. Contrast this with London, where there are traffic lights, but freedom of conscience is respected. Now given that most people don't worship that frequently, maybe once or twice a week, and people who have cars are stopped by traffic lights tens of times a day, it looks like the number of acts that are prohibited by a ban on organised religion are fewer than the number of acts that are prohibited by having a system of traffic control. Surely, however, we would regard the loss of freedom of conscience as much more morally troubling than the loss of traffic-light free roads. In sheer quantitative terms, traffic lights are more of an imposition than a ban on public religious ceremonies, but that balance does not pass over into the qualitative assessment.
The relevance of this to the Democrat's Insight is that it makes much more compelling the idea that assessment of the moral seriousness of coercion need to be made. My point about redistribution could be rephrased as something saying the coercion involved in a distribution which does not regard unrestricted market incomes as sacrosanct is like the coercion involved in the traffic lights in London, and the coercion involved in a distribution does regard unrestricted market incomes as sacrosanct is like the coercion involved in banning public religious ceremonies.