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Four forms of redistribution

By Jonathan Wolff

There are signs that redistribution may be moving back up the agenda of public policy debate. But redistribution is never simple. It can take different forms, and carry different meanings. A common tendency, found in both political discussions and those of academic philosophers, to treat policies of redistribution as a matter of compensation, "making up for" unfair disadvantage. But this is very limiting.

Think of a child who, despite her keen interest and undoubted academic potential, has little chance of finding her way to university because she is being brought up in state care (at present, fewer than one in a hundred children in care go on to higher education). If I were to propose that, as a solution, we offer her a cash lump sum to an amount such that she no longer minds missing out on a university career, you would think this a woefully inadequate response. Most of us would think it far preferable to get her to university if we could find a way of doing so, through positive discrimination or some kind of mentoring scheme.

In fact, as this example illustrates, even once we are agreed that a disadvantage is unfair and calls for public action to rectify it, there will be more than one way of approaching the problem. We can approach this by dividing the factors which determine anyone's opportunities in life into three broad categories: "external" resources (such as money or possessions); "internal" resources (such as talent or knowledge); and the social structures and frameworks within which they live.

Consider an individual who has very low skills, and thus can obtain only low paid employment, which, in turn, can fund only a poor standard of living, and so, we feel, this person has fewer opportunities for a good life than is right. What should we do?

As before, we could just offer the individual extra cash through some form of income support, to "make up for" the loss of opportunities that he suffers. This would be to conceive redistribution as simple compensation. Or, we could adopt a strategy of "targeted resource enhancement", providing the goods and services in kind that we feel the individual is missing and most in need of, such as housing or healthcare. Alternatively, we might try to act upon his "internal resources", by retraining him to improve his employment prospects. This would be redistribution through "personal enhancement".

Finally, we might seek to enhance his status by refashioning the economy to cut the link between low skill and low pay. It is hard to imagine how we might achieve the comprehensive re-ordering of pay scales that this would require, but minimum wage legislation might be seen as at least making a mitigating move in this direction. But there are other cases where this kind of "status enhancement" seems a more likely option. Consider another example: someone who suffers from the sort of disability that makes mobility difficult. What should we do here?

Again, we could aim to offer the person a sufficient amount of money so that she no longer minds immobility. Or we could provide external resources not as general compensation, but for the specific purpose of improving mobility - special equipment, or money with strings attached about how it is spent. Thirdly, we could offer some form of medical or surgical treatment to attempt to enhance the person's mobility. This would be to treat disability as akin to an illness, to be treated by the medical profession, and thus this invokes what has been termed the "medical" model of disability.

Finally we could claim that the disadvantage of disability is largely a consequence of how the physical world has been structured, and how attitudes to disability have developed. We could attempt to remove this disadvantage by reconfiguring the material environment and re-educating ourselves. This is the insight of the "social" model of disability, and suggests that the route to addressing the problem of disability includes introducing buildings with ramps and stairlifts, to encourage technical innovation to reduce the obstacles currently faced by those with mobility problems, and to challenge public perceptions.

Interestingly, among those active in the disability movement, this kind of status enhancement is the generally favoured approach, and the project of the disability movement has largely been to shift perceptions of disability from the medical to the social model. Medicalisation seems to express a humiliating attitude of pity on the part of society to its supposed beneficiaries, whereas status enhancement sends a different message, one of inclusion and tolerance, even appreciation, of diversity.

What is at stake in such debates? I want to suggest that each form of redistribution typically brings with it certain presuppositions about the nature of "the human good". Bringing out these pre-suppositions may help us gain clarity about our reasons for preferring one approach to another.

To begin with simple compensation - this, if proposed as a general remedy, seems to pre-suppose that the only good for human beings is preference- satisfaction, and that all such satisfactions can be placed on a single scale (in the form of a welfare economist's utility function). The problem with this is not so much that compensation is never appropriate, but that we seem to have strong inclinations that sometimes at least it is not, as in the example of the child missing out on university education. Note the rhetoric in which people sometimes reject offers of financial compensation: that they refuse to be "bought off", for it is cheapening or degrading. There seems a type of disrespect involved that cannot easily be reduced to levels of preference satisfaction.

On the other hand, what I have called "targeted resource enhancement" may sometimes be charged with carrying paternalistic overtones. If we are providing people with resources worth a certain value, why not just give people that value in monetary terms and then let them decide what to do with it? If there is something else they would prefer to do with the money on offer, why not let them? This would both respect their autonomy and make them better off. This charge has been levelled at the policy of granting free television licenses to pensioners aged over-75. The government justified this as "helping older pensioners stay in touch and keep informed", but the Opposition pledged to offer the option of an equivalent increase in their state pension instead. The reply to such objections can only be that the point of redistribution here is to correct a particular wrong, not to create a flexible benefit. Autonomy, identified here with short-term pursuit of preference satisfaction, is not uncontroversially the highest good.

However, the argument for targeted resource enhancement always needs to be balanced against the possible stigmatising effects that such treatment may have. Food vouchers, notoriously, are deeply stigmatising. This could tip the balance to cash aid if no high quality in-kind mechanism of delivery can be found. Routine humiliation is far too high a price to pay. But note that if we do provide cash for food, and it is used for other purposes, we may feel resentful, maybe even exploited, even if we may also feel that, all things considered, there is nothing we should do about it.

Where we propose personal enhancement, we may send the message that people are in some sense lacking or falling short, that they suffer from a defect that needs to be overcome. Here, the pre-supposition is "essentialist" or "perfectionist" - that there is a right way for human beings to be. This, it seems, shows where simple compensation goes wrong: goods may not be substitutable, in that it is simply not true that enough of one can make up for any lack of another, because failing to be as one should in one respect cannot be repaired by being given more of something else. Money is no compensation for lack of education or lack of mobility; redistribution has to be made in the specific dimension which is lacking.

Although this appears to explain why compensation fails in some cases, the idea of personal enhancement has its own difficulties. For the presupposition that someone is in some sense defective and in need of enhancement is a very personal judgment, which may be deeply insulting. This is one reason why those in the social disability movement argue against the "medical" model of disability, and refuse the language of "handicap" and "impairment". We must distinguish, it is argued, the idea of defectiveness from the idea of difference.

The relationship between personal enhancement and essentialist or perfectionist ideas of the human good also helps us to clarify why this form of redistribution can be politically controversial, because it may imply a conception of human nature or the good life for human beings that is itself contested. Consider slogans such as "a hand-up not a hand-out" or "work is the best route out of poverty". It is clear that part (if not all) of the appeal here is to a notion what a good life for human beings is, based on values of self-reliance and the "work ethic". And this is why some people feel discomfort with the moralising tone of some of this language, because this particular ideal may be a contestable one, especially if you take into account the kind of "work" that people on the edge of poverty are likely to be offered.

Status enhancement, on the other hand, seems to convey a message of difference rather than deficiency. When we try to alter social or material structures we are accepting that our practices, whether designed to or not, can "pick on" certain groups of people for no good reason, and that we are committed to undoing this. This seems radically pluralist, or anti-perfectionist. It seems to appeal to a notion of individual sovereignty in which people are valued precisely for the qualities and ambitions they have - conventional or unconventional - and assumes that the world should be adjusted in order to accommodate each person. But where it differs from the preference satisfaction theory is the notion that goods should not, in general, be allowed to substitute for each other. The underlying assumption might then be characterised as one of "individual essentialism": each person has their unique set of essential qualities, goals and potentialities, and these should be neither changed nor exchanged.

This seems very attractive, but can status enhancement ever be the wrong approach? Yes, if certain features "really are" deficiencies that ought to be overcome. One obvious example may be illiteracy. Rather than adjusting the world so that illiteracy isn't a disadvantage, presumably we should help people overcome it. In the world as it is, it really is a defect, albeit socially dependent, and personal enhancement seems the natural response.

But this is always going to be a sensitive matter - as illustrated when complaints are raised about "political correctness gone mad". This would be to treat a "real" defect as if it is a difference which requires accommodation. Of course, often "political correctness gone mad" is no such thing, but an improved perception of what life could be like for people who are in some ways different from others. The example of the "deaf community" who have their own (sign) language and imagery, and who, in some cases, argue that they would not want their hearing restored even if it were possible, is a clear example of a group who claim a difference where others see a deficit. But a recent example of a controversial borderline case was seen in the rows over "ebonics" in the US where it was proposed that schoolteachers stop treating "African American Vernacular English" as a sloppy or incorrect approximation of "Standard English".

Difficult questions cannot be avoided if we want to engage in redistributive policies. If we agree that the rectification of unfair disadvantage cannot always be reduced to mere compensation, then we are inescapably embroiled in the task of defining what we think a flourishing human life ought to consist in, at the same time as allowing room for individual texture and variation and not trying to force everyone into one mould. To put things starkly, in any given case we have to decide whether the source of disadvantage is the person or the world. Is it a deficiency that needs to be overcome, or a difference that should be accommodated? Even if we refuse to address this question explicitly, our answer to it may well be revealed by the policies we adopt.

Jonathan Wolff is Professor of Philosophy and Head of Department at University College London and is the author of An Introduction to Political Philosophy (1996) and Why Read Marx Today? (2002). This article is based on a longer paper, The Message of Redistribution: Disadvantage, public policy and the human good, published by Catalyst and available for download from

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