From Academic Kids

For redistribution in the policital sense, please see redistricting.

Redistribution is a term often applied to finite commodities within a society. Redistributive efforts often strive for a more proportionate distribution of these commodities in order to make the society more just.

Public programs and policy measures intended for redistributive purposes include welfare programs, progressive taxation, and public education. Redistributive efforts have been proposed for and applied to monetary wealth, land, opportunity, capital, as well as human capital throughout history.


One kid gets all the marbles

Without redistributive efforts, the "natural" distribution of a desired finite good is an arrangement that few would consider just: one or a few individual(s) owns most of the resource, and the vast majority own very little, if anything at all. This is not based upon merit, but often factors which, while not technically random, can only be attributed to luck.

For a model of why this occurs, consider the following game. A hundred individuals are given 1000 tokens, each player having between 1 and 19 tokens, and the number of tokens each player has is public knowledge. They are free to move about and challenge other players. When this happens, both players flip all their tokens and the player flipping more heads is the winner. He or she receives the loser's tokens, and the losing player is eliminated from the game. Each player's objective is not specifically to own all the tokens, but to avoid elimination while attaining as many tokens as "safely" possible.

Several outcomes are possible from this scenario. It is possible that one player will end up with all the tokens (monarchy). An alternative ending scenario is that multiple players, in roughly equitable distributions, will remain at the end of the game (oligarchy). For example, a distribution (among 4 players) of 260-250-245-245 is probably stable. Given the uncertainty involved with conflict in this game, it is quite possible for the weakest player to beat the strongest player, and all players may decide it is best to avoid conflict and not risk elimination: No further conflict occurs. However, a distribution whereby many or most players (democracy) remain, with smaller and roughly equitable shares of the tokens, is highly unlikely.

Here's why. At the beginning of the game, weaker players will almost certainly be devoured. A player with 19 tokens assumes almost no risk in challenging one with only 1 token, and therefore is likely to do so. Additionally, players are effectively forced participate in as many conflicts as possible early-on, despite the risk. As players are eliminated, the number of tokens per player increases, and players who failed to engage in any conflict and accumulate more tokens will inevitably become comparatively weak. Then, they will be devoured.

The winning player(s) will not necessarily be those who started with a large number of tokens, but rather those who played aggressively, early in the game, and had a substantial amount of luck as well. In practice, in human societies, notions of merit play almost no role at all.

While this model is only an approximation of any real-world dynamic, it can be argued that it models power distributions in human societies tolerably well. For example, in business, it is often the case that an industry begins with hundreds or thousands of small companies. As some die off, others grow and become large. Unable to compete with their larger competitors, the remaining small survivors may be forced to choose between extinction and absorption by a stronger competitor.

Without active efforts toward a more proportionate distribution, monarchical and oligarchical distributions are the norm. This applies to wealth, power, land, and even mates. For example, in polygamous societies, a few members of the gender allowed to have multiple mates will have many, while some of that gender will have none.

Why redistribution is important

Most people, throughout history, have agreed that an autocratic dictatorship is an undesirable situation. In addition, individual and group ambitions toward this end often produce competitive tensions within society that are undisputedly counterproductive.

Additionally, landless, jobless, or mateless individuals become disenfranchised from their societies and are likely to war against it. In mass, they can create a revolution.

For these reason, as well as subjective concerns of social justice, most societies aim to dampen the natural tendencies of distribution toward oligarchy and monarchy. This can be done through preventative measures, but also, after the fact, by way of redistributive mechanisms.

Redistribution, broadly defined, refers to the taking of finite resources from those whom society judges to "have enough" and reallocating them to the underprivileged.

In the past, redistributive efforts could be quite overt. For example, government could decree that certain lands were no longer the property of their original owners, and appropriate them to someone else. However, this invariantly meets bitter controversy, and therefore is rarely done. In modern societies, redistribution normally takes a more subtle form.

Examples of redistribution

In modern society, redistribution takes many forms:

  • Progressive taxation: Taxing wealthy individuals at higher rates, and the poor at low rates (possibly zero or negative) has a redistributive effect. Public services, in theory, are equally available to all, so to charge the wealthy more for them, and the poor less, operates in the benefit of the poor.
  • Welfare programs: Many welfare programs exist specifically to provide assistance to the poor, and are funded by wealthier individuals.
  • Public education: Perhaps the least controversial variety of redistribution is education. By offering publicly-funded educational opportunities to all citizens, a society allows even its poorest members, in theory, access to further opportunities and investment in their own human capital.
  • Affirmative action: To compensate for racial discrimination in the past and, possibly, present, affirmative action measured have been proposed. Affirmative action takes many forms which range from the uncontroversial to the drastic.
  • Inheritance taxes: Since large inheritances come not by merit and represent an affront to distributive justice, most societies tax them substantially. However, it is becoming an increasingly political issue whether wealth that has already been taxed as it was earned should be taxed again upon the owner's death. That is why only particularly large inheritances are usually taxed. For example, in the U.S., inheritances were taxed 50% over $1.2 million until 2001. An opponent of the American inheritance tax is George W. Bush, who temporarily repealed it. By renaming the estate tax the "death tax", American conservatives were able to galvanize the population against the tax during the 2000 U.S. Presidential election, despite the fact that over 99% of Americans are not wealthy enough for the tax to be an issue.

Controversies of redistribution

While some measure of redistribution is necessary for a society to maintain function, redistribution invariantly meets with controversy, especially from those who are privileged and stand to lose in the process.

Criticism of redistribution does come, therefore, from the self-protecting elite. However, there is also an intellectual case against "too much" redistribution. Redistributing economic or political benefits, especially those earned by merit, reduces incentive for individuals within a society to produce.

The least controversial redistributive measures are normally in the form of education, because general consensus is that educating the population benefits all. Social welfare programs are considerably more controversial, but even most American conservatives agree that a social "safety net" is to the general benefit. Overt redistributive efforts are the most controversial of all, sometimes bitterly fr:redistribution


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