At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

Beyond Obama’s Words: The Philosophy Behind Redistribution

Whether he is at a conference of like minded colleagues, speaking to Joe the Plumber, or making campaign stump speeches, Barack Obama has expressed time and time again his preference for “redistribution.”  Every time he calls upon “the rich” to “pay their fair share,” he reveals his desire to confiscate the resources from some in order to transfer it to others.

Though the stuff of sound bites, voters need to realize that words like “redistribution” and “fairness” serve as windows into an entire ideology, a left-wing ideology that has long since become the prevailing orthodoxy of the contemporary academic world.

The demand for “fairness” is the call for equality, it is true.  But equality here is conceived very differently from how Americans have traditionally thought about it.


In fact, the conception of equality held by Obama and his ilk is not only different from that affirmed by America’s founders and their posterity.  The two understandings are mutually antithetical.

Historically, when Americans have affirmed equality, it has always been equality under the law of which they spoke. As such, equality is inseparable from freedom or liberty as Americans have understood the latter. 

That is, the equality—like the liberty—that they prized was held to consist in a system of formal procedures to which all citizens were equally bound.

But procedural notions of equality, liberty, and justice the Obamas of the world disdainfully dismiss as “mere formalism.” 

True justice, true freedom, true equality, they insist, must be “substantial.”


The work of superstar academic philosopher Martha Nussbaum provides as unadulterated an illustration of this view as any.  Nussbaum thinks that to determine whether a society is just or not, we need to ask: “What is each person able to do and to be?” 

To put it more bluntly, the justice of a social order is to be measured in terms of the opportunities that it supplies to each of its members to develop their “capabilities.”  Liberty, that is, consists of “substantial freedoms” with which the members of a decent society should be equipped.

Nussbaum sets her sights upon “entrenched social injustice and inequality, especially capability failures that are the result of discrimination or marginalization.”  With an eye toward rectifying these miscarriages of “social justice,” the government, she declares, must aim “to improve the quality of life for all people, as defined by their capabilities.” 


To no slight extent, the seventeenth century English philosopher John Locke influenced many of America’s founders.  Locke was a prominent proponent of the “social contract” theory.  The idea behind the concept of the social contract is that institutional arrangements are just as long as they have the consent of those who are to be governed by them. 

Nussbaum rejects traditional social contract theories.  She maintains that the latter fail to insure “fair treatment” to the citizens of other societies, our own disabled citizens, and (“nonhuman”) animals. 

This is another way of saying that traditional social contract theories fail to guarantee equality—or “social justice.”

Unless the “deep asymmetry of power” that exists between parties to any social contract is corrected, true equality and justice promise to remain forever elusive.  There are asymmetries of power between, on the one hand, the disabled, members of the Third World, and animals and, on the other, the able, Westerners, and humans, respectively.


These asymmetries of power, in turn, are morally unacceptable inequalities that the proponents of procedural equality—what we have traditionally described as “equality under the law”—not only ignore but perpetuate.

We have, then, no morally defensible option but to treat justice, freedom, and equality as substantive. 

In case there is any confusion over how Nussbaum (and Obama) understands equality and justice, Nussbaum states her account in plain English: Justice depends upon “outcomes”—not, primarily, procedures.

She draws us a picture.

“Suppose we are dividing a pie, and we want to divide it fairly.  One way of thinking about fairness is to look to the outcome of the division: the fair process is the one that gives us equal shares. Another way of thinking about it is to look at procedure: the fair division may be the one in which everyone takes a turn with the knife.”

Nussbaum favors the former.

And so does Obama.

This is what voters must recognize.  


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