Is Fixing Inequality A Matter of Justice?

The question of how to address poverty in the United States is complicated. Steven Horwitz, chair of the department of economics at St. Lawrence University, and Jeffrey Reiman, professor of philosophy and religion at American University, debate the level of government assistance that should be given to help the poor.

In this clip, Prof. Horwitz suggests that the least amount of government necessary should be involved in alleviating U.S. inequality. He discusses the use, for example, of charitable donations from private entities as a way to help the poor without government involvement.

Prof. Reiman, in contrast, suggests that poverty and inequality is a matter of justice. That is, everyone is entitled to a certain standard of living, a certain level of equality in outcome. He argues that charity hurts the dignity of the recipient. When it is a gift, the recipient is made to feel that he does not deserve the charity, that he is made lower than the giver. Instead, he argues, assistance given to the poor should be something they receive because they have a right to it. They should not have to feel that it is undeserved. This is an interesting philosophical question tucked inside a larger debate about the role of government in helping the poor. What do you think?


  1. Chocolate Thunder

    Mr. Gauthier,

    I’ve heard similar arguments. If I may, I would simplify them to essentially saying, "Before you can say that the state ought to do this or that, you have to justify its existence." I am very sympathetic to this argument. It puts the burden of proof on those who wish to tell others what to do to demonstrate why they ought to have the right to do so. By not even addressing that question, there seems to be the assumption that the state has the right to do as it proposes.

    However, I worry about whether this is enough in terms of convince an open-minded person to consider the liberty position. Might they just think this is a cop-out used for any question of state policy?

  2. Chocolate Thunder

    I think that if Reiman is going to argue that inequality is a matter of justice, he has to demonstrate by what means the wealthier owe those who have less. (If we are thinking of justice in the same way, it means that force may rightfully be used to rectify the situation.) I wonder if he addresses this later in the debate, as he is packing certain unspecified assumptions in saying this.

  3. GreedyCapitalistPig

    Agreed Tate. I know that this argument will be tough to make to both liberals and conservatives sicnce they both want some level of statehood. How can you make the argument that people are NOT created equal successfully?

  4. Ryan Boyd

    I think a hugely necessary step in this debate, which I have admittedly not watched in its entirety, would be to define exactly what we mean by justice. Both arguments could be valid, given different definitions.

  5. Titanium

    It is not about how to please certain people, the instrument must be universal. Once social injustice is eliminated, there’s be no inequality to fix. However, social injustice has always been present without or without government intervention. 

  6. AskingWY

    Inequality is a condition of life that is implicit in our existence.  If we were meant to be literally equal we would all look exactly the same and have exactly the same abilities and aptitudes.  This, clearly, isn’t the case.  I don’t think we have an obligation to "fix" inequality, nor do I think we should try.  The concept is offensive to me.  Should we try to assure or guarantee a certain, humane level of lifestyle for all people, meaning the prevention of squalor, disease, lack of physical safety and lack of starvation?  Yes.  But, people are born unequal in every way.  As long as we provide for a system whereby people have equal opportunity to improve themselves and are protected from harm, I think that is where our focus should be.  It is actually demeaning to even think that society should try to take away the inequalities between people.  People should have the opportunity and encouragement to work toward changing their own relative position in life according to their own free choice and their own aspirations.  No one else should choose that for them.

  7. EnsenLux

    Sounds like Professor Reiman would be a proponent of Affirmative Action, because that’s not degrading at all. I’ve never met a homeless man who accuses me of being condescending when I share food with him. With charity, I think the man deserves better, I can’t objectively determine exactly how much he deserves so I voluntarily give him what I can and am willing to give. On the other hand, what Professor Reiman suggests would be a third party arbitrating a subjective notion of justice, and forcibly take from me to give to another. Sorry prof, you need to revisit your philosophy courses, starting from first principles.

  8. Damian Gunjak

    I am charitable when i think people are deserving simply because its helpful. 

  9. GeF

    Justice is a universal right

  10. t3r3r3

    You can still think people owe the disadvantaged some kind of assistance in absence of state welfare programs; it will still be a matter of justice, just not once enforceable by courts and so on (similar to a duty to respect one’s parents).

  11. Ken Tse

    It’s interesting how Reiman says “I give what I owe…” By law, then its more like ” I owe this to someone, and it was taken… Not give. Charity is to give. By law, it is always taken.

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