Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Can Buddhism Inform the Contemporary Western Liberal Debate on the Distribution of Wealth?

Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Can Buddhism Inform the Contemporary Western Liberal Debate on the Distribution of Wealth?

Article excerpt

The Western Debate Over the Distribution of Wealth

The main opponents in the contemporary Western debate over the distribution of wealth are the Liberal Egalitarians, who argue that inequalities should be rectified by the state, and Libertarians, who argue that the state should not interfere with individual property. Their debate turns on three central concepts: justice, equality, and liberty.


Oxford Professor in Political Theory David Miller defines justice as "the constant and perpetual will (of the state) to render to each citizen his due" (76). It is key to political philosophy because it is considered "central to the justification of political authority" (74). The debate over the distribution of wealth is concerned with justice within a political society and the relationship between the state and its citizens, which requires the equal distribution of some social benefit (87).

Liberal Egalitarians and Libertarians can agree on this concept but vary in their interpretations of "what is due to each citizen." What is due to a citizen, as Oxford political philosopher Adam Swift has argued, is directly linked to the concept of duty, meaning moral obligations towards between citizens to be realized through political and social institutions (11). The debate, therefore, focuses on the rights of citizens to be protected and implemented by the state, and at the same time on the duties of individuals towards each other.

Both Liberal Egalitarians and Libertarians consider a state "just" if it grants equal rights to individuals. John Rawls, a Liberal Egalitarian, outlines his first principle for just "social institutions" as: "Each person having an equal claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic rights and liberties" (Political 5). Robert Nozick, a Libertarian, claims that "individuals have rights ... which are so far reaching that they raise the question what the state may do" (ix). Swift adds that the central concern of the primacy of rights is "individualism" or "the wellbeing of the individual" (139-140).

Both sides of the debate also largely agree on what rights citizens should have. Rawls, for example, embraces a basic set of rights and liberties such as the right to property, liberty of conscience and freedom of association, on the basis of the capacity to fulfill citizen's "highest-order interests." These interests are "to realize and to exercise ... (i) the capacity to honor fair terms of cooperation and (ii) the capacity to decide upon, revise, and rationally pursue a conception of the good" ("Papers" 365). On the right to property Rawls remarks, that every person has the right to exclusively hold property in order to assure a sufficient material basis important for self respect and a sense of independence ("Basic" 12). Nozick similarly embraces "rights of self-ownership," which include the right to property, life and liberty (ix). Although neither Rawls nor Nozick make explicit use of the word "human rights," their lists of rights imply civil-political human rights as all of the rights mentioned by them are to be found in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) or the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

The disagreement between the two sides obviously revolves around the right to property and possible limitations to this right. It is noteworthy that this right is accorded a special place by the contributors in the debate. Wealth, as Swift says, is assumed necessary to achieve the liberal aim, namely that people be free to choose for themselves how to live their lives. (140).

Theorists on the Liberal Egalitarian side of the debate--Rawls, Dworkin or Phillippe Van Parijs, for example--argue that because of inequalities in talents or social and economic circumstances within society, it is necessary for the state to create policies such as taxation which may interfere with a right to property. It is the state's duty to ensure equal capability to enjoy and make use of rights. …

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