The United States was founded on principles of freedom—however, when it comes to the distribution of wealth in society, these principles are overshadowed by the reality of this circulation. Specifically, that there are working class people who live in extreme poverty while there are people who own the means of production, spending their comma-filled income on needless necessities.
At this point in time, America’s top one percent hasn’t controlled this much wealth since before the Great Depression. With these issues in mind, there is no question that wealth should be fairly and equally distributed. There is a lack of an ethical explanation for the necessity of drastic differences in lifestyles due to position and unearned privilege in society; arguments related to the harm of competition, the detrimental concept of neoliberalism, and untamed power and domination seek to support this position.
Those of the Marxist/socialist viewpoint have argued that “a society of individuals all struggling to get the upper hand, at whatever cost to each other, is a deeply unappealing spectacle” (Wolff, 2014, p. 545). From this perspective, competition is inherently evil—ethically speaking; it is self seeking with human disregard, as there is a benefit from the loss of others.
Pro-competition arguments rest in the belief that to restrict competition is to fetter autonomy in consumption, which reduces liberty (Wolff, 2014, p. 546). Although, this argument lacks validity, as liberty grants one to act freely provided no harm is produced to others. Competition allows us to inflict severe harm onto less advantageous people for the greater good it serves for others, creating a contradiction in this argument (Wolff, 2014, p. 546).
Jonathan Wolff also argues that the current free market system is exploitative. Since the market of competition is forced, people are in a “sink or swim” situation. Due to this entrapment, the majority of the labor population is vulnerable—they are often weak, poor, ignorant, or dependent, economically, emotionally, or psychologically—they are susceptible to exploitation (Wolff, 2014, p. 548).
In defense of this argument, Wolff claims that “competition has been set up for the general good, but without sufficient regard to how this affects the people who are enticed into the competition by the promise of victory” (p. 549). This “promise of victory” is what makes the system work—enough people are playing the game.
The unequal distribution of wealth is a tool to keep the labor force complacent; they truly believe that one day, with enough work, they too will be in the top percentile of wealth. Wolff concludes in contending that the morally suspect component of competition is not that the winner harms the loser, but that voters and consumers in society benefit from this system which allows people to harm each other (Wolff, 2014, p. 551).
While competition may be productive from the standpoint of innovation and profits, there is not an equal playing field. Rawls argues this point in stating “each person finds [themselves] placed at birth in some particular position in some particular society, and the nature of this position materially affects [their] life prospects” (p. 514).
Class position, social status, and immutable personal characteristics are all factors of success in a competitive, free market society. A cisgender, White man who was born into wealth has a greater chance of success in this grotesque society than a gender nonconforming person of color who was born into poverty.
However, the hegemony fashions this reality as something that is self imposed. Socialized in neoliberalism, collective consciousness is led to the myth that there are certain advantages and disadvantages people are given at birth; however, with hard work disadvantages can be conquered and wealth will sprout. If success has not been accomplished, then this is something of free will—because everyone has equal opportunity to succeed in society if the person “pulls themselves up by their bootstraps”. This argument lacks veracity, as key identity characteristics foster a unique life experience, either progressing or inhibiting success under capitalism.
After establishing that the “equal opportunity to succeed” concept is a myth, this reality gives rise to an unequal distribution of wealth. Those who are born into or conform to socialization will be rewarded for their unearned privilege, while those who will not or do not have the ability to conform will be harmed from the first groups success—and the hegemony will benefit from this harm.
Providing a different perspective for the ethics of the fair distribution of wealth, Iris Marion Young points out the problems within the distributive paradigm. She explains that it is detrimental to reduce social justice to wealth distribution, as this focus oftentimes ignores the social structure and institutional context that tends to help determine distributive patterns (Marion Young, 2014, p. 535). However, it is important not to completely disregard the necessity of distribution.
Marion Young pleads for the conversation to open up to a wider context, one that “also includes action, decisions about action, and provision of the means to develop and exercise capacities” (Marion Young, 2014, p. 536). The major issue she finds with the reduction of social justice to distribution is that it does not include all aspects of institutional rules and relations. The social justice conversation should start with overcoming the issue of power, domination, and oppression before dealing with distribution, as that is where the root of the issue is.
The system as it is, involving the issues of domination and oppression, allows for corruption to occur in the production and distribution of goods and services. The production aspect of the free-market economy engenders the influence of special interest groups, harboring corruption. In the video, “Story of Stuff”, it is explained that corporations tend to have control over the government through monetary influence.
Frequently, the government is more concerned with keeping corporations satisfied due to this influence than the people they have been elected to represent (Leonard, 2007). This directly correlates with the advancement and untamed power of competition.
There is wealth involved in exploiting developing countries and the domestic labor force, discharging large amounts of harmful chemicals into the environment, and manipulating those who are already poor from this system to continue a consumption based lifestyle with complacency (Leonard, 2007). This circles back to the question of the ethical premise for competition—if people are being hurt in the process then the system, as a whole, lacks moral right.
Recently, there have been discussions and ballot measures suggested in order to equalize and create a more fair wealth distribution by the newly elected members of Congress. Rep. Ocasio-Cortez has proposed a new marginal tax rate of 70 percent on income over $10 million.
Oftentimes misreported thus misunderstood as a 70 percent tax on all income, the congresswoman cleared misconceptions in disclosing that, “It’s not on all of your income. It’s on your 10 millionth and one dollar. So after you make 10 million dollars in one year, your dollars after that start to get progressively taxed at a much higher rate” (Kessler, 2019).
High marginal tax rates have previously been the norm; however, there has been extreme backlash for this proposal from both sides. This measure is a step in the right direction for fair distribution of wealth, although it does not tackle the larger systemic issues that allow wealth to be unequal in the first place. It is important to address Marion Young’s qualms when proceeding with the movement to redistribute wealth.
The distribution of wealth in America is at record levels of unequal, which calls for a reexamination of the collectively accepted norm—a competition-based economy. A system where the many live in poverty working full time jobs while the few thrive from their harm is fundamentally broken. In order to tackle the issue of wealth inequality, there needs to be larger systemic changes that challenge power and domination within the current economy. There is a sound ethical argument for fair and equal distribution of wealth, with an expulsion of competition.
Kessler, G. (2019, January 31). Ocasio-Cortez’s 70-percent tax rate: Not so radical? Retrieved https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/01/31/ocasio-cortezs-percent-tax-rate-not-so-radical/
LaFollette, H. (2014). Ethics in practice: An anthology. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.Leonard, A. (2007, December).
Story Of Stuff. Retrieved from https://storyofstuff.org/wp-content/uploads/movies/scripts/Story of Stuff.pdfPaul, K. (2018, August 05).