Perhaps the most famous moment of the recent presidential campaign is the Joe-the-Plumber incident. The incident itself is identified in different ways. Many on the right would recall it as the time when now President-elect Barack Obama answered Joe Wurzelbacher’s question about taxes with the revealing claim that “when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.” Many on the left, by contrast, identify it as the time that the McCain campaign attempted to make the threat of “socialism” the defining issue of the election.

Politics trades in rhetoric and hyperbole rather than fine distinctions, so it should be no surprise if both Obama and McCain fell short of the mark in identifying the most important claims of economic justice and injustice. But clarity is important here; while Obama was indicating, I believe, support for the idea of welfare rights, his way of expressing this support was inapt, giving rise to the impression that he was indicating support for welfare states. Meanwhile, those on the right were correct to reject the idea of the welfare state, but that rejection sometimes slid into a repudiation of welfare rights. Such a repudiation would be a serious mistake.

So, what were the errors to which Obama’s remark seemed inclined? And why would the rejection of welfare rights be a mistaken response?

The idea of “spreading the wealth around” seemed to express two misunderstandings. The first is an idea of straightforward economic egalitarianism; the second is the idea that obligations of economic justice are best addressed at an exclusively political level, with minimal discretion on the part of those who have these obligations. Both views are in error for a combination of reasons of efficiency, fairness, and respect for autonomy.

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A regime of private property is, in a society, a moral need because without such a regime, the resources of the earth are unlikely to be put to use in an effective or fair manner. If property is held in common, it will be ill-cared for; and if what is appropriated by individuals is not protected, but is at the mercy of the strong, then a kind of Hobbesian state of nature seems not too far off. On the other hand, a robust regime of private property, particularly one that recognizes the relationship between an agent’s labor and his claims to authority over the fruits of his labor, encourages creative, disciplined, and productive use of the world’s resources for the human good.

But economic egalitarianism threatens all of this. Agents will be inclined, given plausible empirical assumptions about human nature, to shirk labor if they are guaranteed the same economic position regardless of what they do; and agents who work harder, more creatively, and with greater productivity, seem done an injustice if the fruits of that labor are distributed equally to all.

Was Obama advocating spreading the wealth around to the point of equality? It seems unlikely. More plausibly, he was recognizing that agents with a sufficiency of wealth and property have obligations, in justice, to those in grave need, including those who, by accident of birth or circumstance, are unable to provide for themselves, or, in many cases, unable to meet obligations they have to provide for others. Yet even if we acknowledge the existence of these obligations, the Joe-the-Plumber incident suggested that Obama might be wedded to an overly statist conception of how those obligations should be met.

Meeting one’s obligations in charity is an element of loving one’s neighbor. And who one’s neighbor is depends on the circumstances into which one is thrown, and the persons one can, at this moment, and in this place, give aid to. But it is also a matter of what obligations one has undertaken, which persons one is bound to by those obligations and other relationships, and how one understands one’s own vocation to aid those in need: is it, for example, by creative investment of capital in a business which will supply jobs and economic stimulus? Is it by contributions to a charity of one’s choice? Or is it by the creation of a charity of one’s choice? Discerning which option, among these and many others, is a matter of constituting oneself as the person one believes one should become. And this self-constituting—not around simply what we desire or happen to want, but in orientation to real goods, real possibilities for human well-being—is an essential part of the moral life.

So a state that resists giving individuals the discretion to make these self-constituting choices as regards the identification and satisfaction of their obligations removes from those individuals a key axis along which they may shape themselves as the persons they should be. Such a state seems, to that extent, unjust.

Socialism, if it entails either of these claims (economic egalitarianism and state—but not personal—discretion in matters of economic justice) should therefore be resisted, as should either claim on its own. But cries of socialism should also be viewed with some suspicion if they amount to either of two different errors: the error of thinking that there are no genuine obligations of economic justice and the error of thinking that such obligations can and should be carried out with no help by the state.

We do have real obligations to the poor, and we can better understand our obligations through an example. I may have earned my evening “time alone” which I use to take a walk. But if that walk brings my in the area of someone drowning for want of aid, I surely have an obligation to give such help to him as is necessary, even if the cost is giving up my intended walk. I may likewise have earned money far in abundance over what I need to satisfy any real or possible obligation to myself and my loved ones. Do I really have no obligations in justice to use that surplus in ways that will benefit others? Could I, for example, allow my fine fields to go entirely unused and be of no benefit simply because I had legitimately earned the money with which I purchased them?

Anyone who acknowledges duties of aid to those in desperate need when what is provided is my time, or the capacities of my person, should surely think that some such obligations involve money. Money is no more mine than my time or person, and the needs of some who have no money are in many cases no less pressing than the needs of those drowning.

How should those obligations be met? Individuals should be given considerable discretion in answering this question. But individuals alone are clearly not fully adequate for meeting the needs of others. To be effective, they must act in a coordinated way, and the welfare of all will, in all likelihood, be further advanced with a division of labor, according to which some found and run, and others staff, voluntary associations, while others contribute primarily in a financial way while pursuing other vocations.

Someone might acknowledge these claims while still maintaining a resistance to welfare rights in the political sense. It would be better, they might urge, for economic justice to be pursued exclusively at the level of private citizens and voluntary associations.

The superiority of voluntary associations to the statist approach may be quite true, however, without this implying that there is no role for the state. Leaving the administration of economic justice exclusively to voluntary associations seems problematic in several ways. For example: state regulation can render these associations more safe and efficient, and weed out charlatan and fraudulent organizations. Tax breaks can help such associations pursue their charitable activities in a more effective manner. And, finally, voluntary associations are unlikely to be able to comprehensively provide all necessary services to all those who need them. Some individuals will fall outside the safety net provided by voluntary associations. But the state properly has within the scope of its concern all persons within its borders. Consequently it falls to the state to correct for the inevitable gaps in the scope of concern of voluntary associations.

We should not, therefore, see those positive duties clustered around welfare needs as purely private, i.e., not the business of the state. There is much room in the middle between an extreme libertarian or Randian rejection of welfare rights, and an extreme egalitarian or statist conception of those rights. Clarifying the nature of this middle area is something that the moderate right and the moderate left can surely work towards together.