Coercive redistribution and public agreement: re-evaluating the libertarian challenge of charity

FCRIcover 1..2(with Phil Parvin) in Matt Matravers and Lukas Meyer (eds.), Democracy, Equality, and Justice (Routledge and special issue of Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy (CRISPP) Vol. 13 No. 1 (2010).

In this article, we evaluate the capacity of liberal egalitarianism to rebut what we call the libertarian challenge of charity. This challenge states that coercive redistributive taxation is neither needed nor justified, since those who endorse redistribution can give charitably, and those who do not endorse redistribution cannot justifiably be coerced. We argue that contemporary developments in liberal political thought render liberalism more vulnerable to this libertarian challenge.

Many liberals have, in recent years, sought to recast liberalism such that it is more hospitable to cultural, religious, and ethnic diversity. This move has resulted in increased support for the claim that liberalism should be understood as a political rather than comprehensive doctrine, and that liberal institutions should draw their legitimacy from agreements made among members of an appropriately conceived deliberative community, rather than from controversial liberal principles like individual autonomy. We argue that, while this move may indeed make liberalism more compatible with cultural diversity, it also makes it more vulnerable to the libertarian challenge of charity. Not all versions of liberalism are troubled by the challenge, but those that are troubled by it are increasingly dominant.

We also discuss G.A. Cohen’s claim that liberal equality requires an ‘egalitarian ethos’ and argue that, if Cohen is right, it is difficult to see how there can be an adequate response to the libertarian challenge of charity. In general, our argument can be summarised as follows: the more that liberalism is concerned accurately to model the actual democratic wishes and motivations of the people it governs, the less it is able to justify coercively imposing redistributive principles of justice.

You can read a copy of this paper here.