Socialism: Dividing Society’s Pie

[This is the fourth in a multipart series addressing the surge in interest in and support for Socialism. Subsequent entries will explore what the surge means, what it seeks or will seek, where it might extend, and how it might unfold.]

Call the total goods and services any society produces society’s pie. Socialists typically feel that society’s pie ought to be fairly divided among society’s workers. But is it sufficient to just say income distribution needs to get more fair?

Don’t we need to say more to help dispel the widespread feeling there is nothing better beyond capitalism? Don’t we need to say more so our actions cumulatively take us where we want to go?

One option for distributing income is to say that people ought to get more if they own property that contributes to the worth of society’s pie. If I have a deed that stipulates that I own Amazon, then with this approach I get profits back as part of my income even if I simply sit in a chair and “earn” as much each work day as typical workers earn in 100 years. (I am actually being conservative in the estimate for someone like, say, Jeff Bezos, because if Bezos earns $13 billion in profits next year – not impossible – then he earns about $50 million per workday. If Sam, working for Bezos at a pretty good job, earns $50,000 a year, he earns $50 million in a thousand years). 

If there is one thing nearly all past socialists agreed on, it was that property-based income creates dehumanizing poverty, propels holders to lordlike dominion over workplaces, causes ceaseless conflict over property-induced differences in income and power, demolishes diversity by homogenizing contending classes, and subverts sustainability by giving centralized power an interest in exploiting nature and accumulating ceaselessly.

Rejecting property-based income for those reasons, a second income option is that people ought to get more income if they are strong enough to take more, and less income if they are sufficiently weak to be given less. If I can take more, great, I will. If you can’t take more, too bad, you won’t. Now it may seem that this thuggish approach to distributing income is so odious that no one would advocate it, but in fact, it is literally how markets operate. If you have bargaining power based on your having property, or having a monopoly on information or skills, or being aided by a bought-off government agency, a professional organization, or a union, you can take more than others. If you have less power because your society is racist and you are in a racially subordinated constituency or your society is sexist and you are female, or you are isolated and easily replaceable at work, you get less income. A power-based option to distributing income violates our favored values in the same ways as rewarding property does, albeit, a bit less extremely.

Next comes an option that’s harder to dismiss and that many who say they are socialist explicitly support. This norm is that people should receive back from society’s pie a bundle of preferred items whose total value reflects the total value of what they contributed by their labor to society’s pie. If you and I pick cotton and you pick more each day, you should get that much more income each day. And likewise if we tend patients, play music, wash dishes, or whatever else – if you contribute more to society’s pie, you should get more income in that same proportion. After all, if we get less than what our work generated, someone else is getting some of the value we generated. If we get more than our work generated, we are getting some value others generated. Shouldn’t we get back the amount that we, by our labors, contribute to the total, and not more or less than that?

But what might cause you to produce more worth than me, over the same period of time? You may be better equipped for the work, stronger, quicker, or better able to reason. Or you may have a plow and I only have a hoe. You may have a computer, and I only have pencil and paper. Or maybe you have workmates that better aid your ability to produce because they are more capable than my workmates are. Or, finally, you may produce brain repairs whereas I produce car repairs. You may make gourmet meals, whereas I sling hash.

But why should your more productive inborn genetic characteristics, better equipment, more effective workmates, or more valuable output ethically entitle you to more income? In none of these cases would the extra income reward your activity but, instead, only your luck in the genetic, equipment, workmate, or assigned product lottery. And is rewarding luck in those lotteries economically fair? Doesn’t it subvert our other values similarly to how rewarding property or bargaining power does? 

Please note: a key thing about values is that they are not true or false. I can’t advocate a value on grounds that I can prove it is correct or reject another on grounds I can prove it incorrect. No one can prove any such thing. Instead, the distinction has to be that we like what fulfilling one value leads to for society and we don’t like what fulfilling another value leads to. This was true for our general allegiance to equity, self management, solidarity, diversity, and sustainability, all of which we found likable, and as we proceed we need to find likable whatever refinement of those values we settle on to further guide our approach to organizing particular aspects of social life. 

So, do we think a society will be better if it rewards a person for their luck in inheriting traits like strength, speed, smarts, etc? Should exceptional ballplayers, singers, calculators, and what have you, earn vast income for their special abilities? If you think the answer is yes, be aware that top athletes now signing contracts for as much as $35 million a year are actually getting less than the value they add to society’s pie in the enjoyment of people watching them, because much is taken by team owners, TV stations, shoe manufacturers, and the like who have sufficient bargaining power to do so. Or consider a less extreme example. Two farm workers go out in the field and work under the same sun, for the same duration, and using the same tools, but one is six foot four and really strong, and the other is five foot eight and of average strength. They both produce valuable output, but the bigger, stronger farmhand produces twice as much. Do we really feel it is morally desirable to pay the stronger farmhand twice what we pay the weaker one? Might it be better if the workers get income according to a different norm? Or do we think piling wealth on top of lucky genetic endowment is ethically sound?

And should we reward people, as well, for luck in the equipment lottery? I have better tools at my disposal than you, so should my hourly income be more in the same proportion my tools let me produce more? Or, similarly, is society better if we reward luck in being with a more talented team of co-workers, or of happening to be assigned to produce objects of greater value? 

Socialists of every denomination don’t like rewarding property or bargaining power, but many do favor rewarding output. I would like to suggest, instead, that a worthy economic vision should give income for how long one works, for how hard one works, and for the onerousness of the conditions under which one works, as long as one is producing something that is socially valued. Socialists should favor receiving higher income for working longer, harder, or under worse conditions, but not for being stronger or more talented, having better equipment, better workmates, or producing something more highly valued.

With this approach an average income will be payment for a workload of average duration, intensity, and onerousness. If I want more leisure than average, I will arrange to work less hours and get commensurately less income. And the same goes for the intensity of my work, or if it is more or less onerous. One way to look at this is that each worker gets a work assignment and an income. Society seeks to ensure that the sum of debits and benefits of one’s work and income taken together equalizes for everyone. If I work harder, or I work longer, or I work under more onerous conditions, the greater loss is offset by my getting more income for my efforts. 

I claim this approach to income distribution is economically equitable and highly consistent with all the values we seek to fulfill. Many will agree it is a fair approach but doubt its practicality and they are right it would do no good to have a fair approach that leaves everyone impoverished due to generating insufficient production. So can providing income for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor not only be ethically sound, but also get the needed economic job done? The next essay in our series addresses that legitimate concern.

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Michael April 8, 2019 1:34 pm 

    I came from a working class family and from the age of 13 to 22, until I graduated from college the first time, I worked with my dad and hard, demanding physical labor in Florida where working temperatures usually were in the upper 80’s and 90’s. My dad did this until he retired. He grew up on a farm where he was born and always knew hard physical labor, and as a person he was honest and fair with those for whom he worked. I inherited much of this work ethic.

    But after college and graduate studies I worked in offices, in suits and ties. I brought my work ethic with me and I once had a colleague and “boss” who said when I left that job after several years that he never knew anyone who turned out as much work as I did. I always knew that the work I did with my dad was in many ways far more demanding no matter how hard I worked in offices. The physical labor I grew up with those 10 years I worked with my dad formed my life, even to this day many years later.

    Which job should have been compensated more? I know what society and economic systems say, I greatly question the judgements of those entities.

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