Front Page Titles (by Subject) II.: Distributive Justice: The Conventional View - The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan, Vol. 10 (The Reason of Rules: Constitutional Political Economy)
Return to Title Page for The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan, Vol. 10 (The Reason of Rules: Constitutional Political Economy)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
II.: Distributive Justice: The Conventional View - Geoffrey Brennan, The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan, Vol. 10 (The Reason of Rules: Constitutional Political Economy) 
The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan, Vol. 10 (The Reason of Rules: Constitutional Political Economy) Foreword by Robert D. Tollison (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
Foreword and coauthor note © 2000 Liberty Fund, Inc. © 1985 by Cambridge University Press.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Distributive Justice: The Conventional View
Characterizing the normal conception of distributive justice involves posing and attempting to answer the question, How should total product be distributed? All possible distributions of some aggregate are considered, and some criteria are used to select the “best.” A common analogy is the division of a pie among contending children, each of whom is presumed to want more pie. Consider, for example, a simple two-person community, composed of persons J and K. In terms of simple geometry, the set of possible distributions is given by the line JK in Figure 8.1. Niggardly nature presents the community with an aggregate OJ (equal to OK), which can be given all to J (at point J) or all to K (at point K), respectively, or distributed between J and K in various proportions. We represent the distribution as the ratio of J’s share to K’s share; at E, for example, we can depict this ratio as the slope of the ray from the origin to E, SE. Alternative measures of the distribution might be the difference between SE and unity (that is, equality), or the variance of levels or the amount assigned to the poorer individual (at E,OM) or something more complex. It is normally more or less presumed that, ceteris paribus, equality is best. In this abstract characterization it is perhaps difficult to justify anything other than equality (though it may not be a trivial matter to justify equality either).
Economists and others typically argue that this characterization is inadequate in two significant respects. First, the pie does not present itself as an aggregate. Rather, it comes already sliced, the size of the slices being determined by the relative productive capacities of individuals. That is, there is a point on the JK line (let it be Q in Figure 8.2:) that represents a sort of status quo point from which redistribution via some means must occur. Second, as redistribution occurs, the size of the pie changes. The general presumption is that as we move away from Q, the pie shrinks at an accelerating rate as “excess burden” arises on both the tax and the transfer side of the redistributive process. Accordingly, the relevant possibilities frontier becomes something like UV in Figure 8.2: Only points on UV are feasible; points on JK other than Q are not. Armed with this concession to reality, the normative analysis becomes one of “trading off” pie size against pie distribution, and the famous “equity-efficiency” conflict emerges. The “policy problem,” then, presents itself in two dimensions: first, that of organizing the operation of policy instruments so that the cost in terms of pie forgone in achieving the ideal distribution is minimized; and second, that of determining how much distributive justice should be sacrificed in order to keep the pie as large as possible.