A Short History of Distributive Justice

A Short History of Distributive Justice

A Short History of Distributive Justice

A Short History of Distributive Justice


Distributive justice in its modern sense calls on the state to guarantee that everyone is supplied with a certain level of material means. Samuel Fleischacker argues that guaranteeing aid to the poor is a modern idea, developed only in the last two centuries.

Earlier notions of justice, including Aristotle's, were concerned with the distribution of political office, not of property. It was only in the eighteenth century, in the work of philosophers such as Adam Smith and Immanuel Kant, that justice began to be applied to the problem of poverty. To attribute a longer pedigree to distributive justice is to fail to distinguish between justice and charity.

Fleischacker explains how confusing these principles has created misconceptions about the historical development of the welfare state. Socialists, for instance, often claim that modern economics obliterated ancient ideals of equality and social justice. Free-market promoters agree but applaud the apparent triumph of skepticism and social-scientific rigor. Both interpretations overlook the gradual changes in thinking that yielded our current assumption that justice calls for everyone, if possible, to be lifted out of poverty. By examining major writings in ancient, medieval, and modern political philosophy, Fleischacker shows how we arrived at the contemporary meaning of distributive justice.


I have admonished the rich; now hear, ye poor. Ye rich, lay out
your money; ye poor, refrain from plundering. Ye rich, distrib
ute your means; ye poor, bridle your desires.… [Y]e have not a
house in common with the rich, but ye have the heaven in
common, the light in common. Seek only for a sufficiency, seek
for what is enough, and do not wish for more.


I mentioned in the previous chapter that my interest in the history of distributive justice was sparked by work on Adam Smith. As it happens, Smith is an appropriate terminus ad quern for the first chapter of that history. One reason for that is that Smith, one of the first philosophers to include a history of philosophy in his writings, himself remarks interestingly on changes in the meaning of the phrase “distributive justice.” Another reason is that Smith is about the last major thinker to use “distributive justice” in its premodern sense. As we shall see in the next chapter, the modern notion that goes by that name was born at almost exactly the moment when Smith died.

A third reason is that, perhaps because Smith marks the end of an earlier way of thinking about distributive justice, what is wrong with standard accounts of the history of that phrase comes out particularly clearly when scholars address Smith. Practically all commentators on Smith, including the best among them, describe him as rejecting the notion of distributive justice. Istvan Hont and Michael Ignatieff say that Smith's views “effectively excluded 'distributive justice' from the appropriate functions of government in a market society,” that he “insisted” that only commutative justice could be enforced (NJ 24). Donald Winch speaks of “the restriction of the application [of the notion of justice] in . . .

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