Symposium “Distributive Justice” - University of Zurich

Covid-19, distributive justice, and the super-rich

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the richer get richer and the poorer get poorer. Can this be justified?

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Two kinds of headlines have marked our daily lives since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. On the one hand, “Coronavirus pandemic plunges millions of Americans into poverty” (Aratani 2020). An increased number of people are no longer able to pay for their treatment or for their basic needs (World Bank 2020), especially Black and Hispanic Americans who have seen unemployment rates almost twice that of White Americans during the pandemic (Parolin et al. 2020).

On the other hand, “Jeff Bezos [or other rich persons] became even richer thanks to Covid-19” (Reich 2020). Forbes 400 states that “America’s 400 richest are worth a record 3.2 trillion dollars, up 240 billion dollars from a year ago, aided by a stock market that has defied the virus” (Dolan, Peterson-Withorn and Wang, 2020). Number one on this list: CEO of Amazon Jeff Bezos (with a net worth of 179 Billion dollars) earned so much extra wealth during the pandemic that he could give every single one of his employees a one-time pandemic bonus of USD 105,000 and still be as rich as he was before the pandemic (Giridharadas, 2020). So not only were the super-rich not affected by the pandemic; often, they made a fortune out of it.

How can we evaluate this situation from the perspective of justice? More specifically, can this expansion of the inequalities between rich and poor be justified? In this post, we consider how the theories of justice of two political philosophers, Robert Nozick and John Rawls, can help us answering these questions.

 

Covid inequalities and justice in holdings

In his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), Robert Nozick argues that a just society can only accommodate a minimal state that only collects taxes to guarantee security to its members. This is mainly because individuals have strong entitlements to their property – a libertarian premise often used to justify any wealth accumulation.

Nozick’s elaborated theory proposes that individual are entitled to their resources (holdings) if they have acquired them following two principles of “justice in holdings” (1974, 151). The first one is the principle of “justice in acquisition,” which defines how “unheld things” can be acquired (Nozick 1974, 150). Since our interest is in the just character not of acquisitions, but of transfers of resources, we are more interested in his second principle of “justice in transfer.”

In Nozick’s view (1974, 160-164), holdings are justly transferred when an individual voluntarily chooses to give (part of) their resources to another person. Because individuals are entitled to their resources before the transfers, any distribution of holdings resulting from such voluntary transfers needs to be considered just. As such, the person who receives new resources in this way is entitled to them – independently of whether someone’s status in society or their advantages or disadvantages are impacted by this transfer.

This would give us reasons to think that the fact that the rich have become richer during the pandemic is just: since people voluntarily and freely transferred their money to buy, for instance, goods from a big delivery company, the owners of these delivery companies are entitled to these new resources.

But was the principle of justice in transfer really realized throughout Covid-19, in ways that would justify the super-rich’s accumulation of wealth? We think that there is reason to doubt it.

This is because the criterion of voluntary choice is hardly met in situations of large inequality and quasi-monopolies (see Goolsbee 2020; Kwak 2020) – and especially during the pandemic. A voluntary transfer means a transfer by free choice or of one’s own accord. If a company has a monopoly on a holding that is needed for basic needs, is it not more of an enforced transfer? Is the criterion of voluntariness met if my only other option would be to risk my health to find other retailers? And did people really have a choice not to order masks online, when these were required to enter public transportation or shops?

Unless these transfers were voluntary ones, the distributions that resulted from them did not produce entitlements. In other words, the super-rich would not have a claim to keeping the benefits they generated during the pandemic, or at least not in their entirety.

 

Covid inequalities and the difference principle

The work of another political philosopher gives us further reasons to denounce the unjust character of the growing inequalities in time of Covid-19: John Rawls’ Theory of Justice (1999 [1971]).

Rawls (1999, 12-13) proposes that the principles of a just society ought to be selected in the “original position.” The individuals designing these principles of justice should be under a “veil of ignorance” (Rawls 1999, 11), namely ignorant of most of their individual characteristics (like sex, age, skin-color, position in society, etc.). Because everyone could be in the worst-off position without knowing it, the veil of ignorance would ensure that the principles selected are acceptable even to the worst-off.

One of the principles selected in the original position, according to Rawls, is the “Difference Principle”: “taking equality as the basis of comparison, those who have gained more must do so on terms that are justifiable to those who have gained the least” (Rawls 1999, 131). In other words: no more inequalities can be justified than those that benefit the worst-off, compared to a situation of strict equality.

This principle has been clearly violated during the pandemic: the rich have been getting richer and the poor, poorer.

 

Questioning the fundamentals of our societies

This brief discussion suggests that there might be something fundamentally unjust with the way our societies have let people make money in 2020 – and, possibly, beyond. Even Nozick’s theory, which considers that massive wealth accumulation can be just, does not seem to apply in the context of Covid-19. And, following Rawls, if no one under the veil of ignorance would let some individuals accumulate more money than they could ever spend in their lifetime while others cannot pay their hospital bills (especially in times of pandemic), the way our society is built is unjust.

Should we preserve institutions that lead to such outcomes? Or should we replace them with other ones? We do not offer an answer to this question here. The theories give us a beginning and an end, but not the way in between. The search of a change into a just society is now the duty of today’s philosophers.


References

Aratani, Lauren. 2020. “Coronavirus pandemic plunges millions of Americans into poverty” The Guardian, October 15. Accessed December 10, 2020. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/oct/15/coronavirus-pandemic-plunges-millions-of-americans-into-poverty.

Giridharadas, Anand. 2020. “Billionaires won corona.” The Ink, September 10. Accessed December 10, 2020. https://the.ink/p/billionaire-wealth-just-got-wealthier.

Goolsbee, Austan. 2020. “Big Companies Are Starting to Swallow the World.” The New York Times, September 30. Accessed December 10, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/30/business/big-companies-are-starting-to-swallow-the-world.html.

Dolan, Kerry A., Chase Peterson-Withorn and Jennifer Wang. 2020. “Pandemic be damned: America’s 400 richest are worth a record $3.2 trillion.” Forbes, n.d. Accessed Decemner 10, 2020. https://www.forbes.com/forbes-400.

Kwak, James. 2020. “The end of small business.” The Washington Post, July 9. Accessed Decemner 10, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/07/09/after-covid-19-giant-corporations-chains-may-be-only-ones-left.

Nozick, Robert. 1974. Anarchy, State and Utopia. Oxford: Blackwell.

Parolin, Zachary, Megan Curran, Jordan Matsudaira, Jane Waldfogel and Christopher Widmer. 2020. “Monthly Poverty Rates in the United States during the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Columbia University Poverty and Social Policy Working Paper. Accessed February 6, 2021. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5743308460b5e922a25a6dc7/t/5f87c59e4cd0011fabd38973/1602733471158/COVID-Projecting-Poverty-Monthly-CPSP-2020.pdf.

Rawls, John. 1999. A Theory of Justice (Revised Edition). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Reich, Robert. 2020. “Jeff Bezos became even richer thanks to Covid-19. But he still won’t protect Amazon Workers.” The Guardian, December 13. Accessed February 3, 2021. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/dec/12/jeff-bezos-amazon-workers-covid-19-scrooge-capitalism.

World Bank. 2020. “COVID-19 to Add as Many as 150 Million Extreme Poor by 2021.” Worldbank.org, October 7. Accessed December 10, 2020. https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2020/10/07/covid-19-to-add-as-many-as-150-million-extreme-poor-by-2021.