Friday, May 13, 2005

The Best Distribution

Suppose we have a group of people, none of whom are more deserving of reward than the others. Further suppose that we have a bunch of resources to share around them. What would be the best way to distribute the resources?

Should we care about the outcome, or only the distributive procedure? For example, we could divide up the resources equally, or else we could aim for the outcome of everyone having equal resources. In the latter case, people who were poorer to begin with would receive a greater share of the new resources. Which approach is better? (Compare telic and deontic egalitarianism.)

This also raises the question of what we should be equalizing. So far I've assumed equality of resources. But note that some people might need more resources to get the same benefit to their well-being as others. So it might be fairer to aim at equality of welfare (i.e. utility), instead.

Finally, we might not care (intrinsically) about the distribution at all. We might just want to maximize well-being, no matter whose it is. This seems the more impartial approach. This would treat people in the opposite way to the "equality of welfare" approach.

According to equality of welfare, we should expend the most resources on those who benefit the least from them, to help compensate for their inability to use resources efficiently. Utilitarianism, by contrast, would recommend distributing resources in the most effective way possible. If some people cannot make good use of the resources, then they should instead be given to those who would get a greater benefit from them.

The greatest problem with taking "equality of welfare" as our goal is that it creates the potential for "utility drains", i.e. someone who is so bad at at converting resources into well-being, that we end up wasting nearly all our resources on them, and to little effect.

Utilitarianism faces the opposite objection, in that there might be a "utility monster" who would be made so incredibly happy by each additional resource that his interests would outweigh everyone else's, and he alone would receive all the resources. That seems unfair. But I don't think this objection is so serious. It's just so implausible, given what we intuitively know about decreasing marginal utility and so forth, that I'm not sure we can even imagine it properly. (So when we call it "unfair", we may instead be imagining a case where the man's happiness did not in fact outweigh the opportunity costs suffered by all the others.) 

In any case, this is clearly preferable to the "utility drain" which can result from equality of welfare. So we are left with three options: utilitarianism, procedural resource egalitarianism, and 'outcome' resource egalitarianism.

My position is that utilitarianism is required by the notion of equal concern for all. For otherwise you are saying that worse-off people count for more. Even if they get a lesser benefit from the resource, that's seen as more important than a larger benefit for someone else.

What do you think?


  1. > a "utility monster"

    Haha you must be using a very odd measure of utility to get this. Since utility is somthing we somewhat arbitrarily define we need to work out hwo it should be measured For example you might use a measure of utility where-in for example saving your life is more than half of all of the potential utility you can claim ot be recieving (unless you are suicidal I guess).

    I agree we should maximise delivery of utility - the example I will use is an aid worker in a poor country. A very obvious example.

    -- lets take our african starving nation example

    utilitarianism - build a well, start teaching people how to fish, develop cure for aids etc... Create LONG TERM utility maximization. this is what every good aid agency does.

    procedural resource egalitarianism - give everyone a bit of food - some get not enough food to survive and thus die anyway - probably somewhat more painfully. Equal distribution is ridiculously difficult and your aid workers die in the process of attempting it in the end almost all your resurces are lost on the effort to be fair. (tell me it ain't so)

    > 'outcome' resource egalitarianism.

    Even more difficult than the former and you half feed EVERYONE!

  2. If we could create wealth just by assuming its existence, nobody would care how it was distributed.

    In reality, wealth has to be produced, and the rules that govern distribution of wealth have a huge effect on the incentives that influence its creation.

    Any analysis that starts by assuming distribution is independent of production is so flawed as to be useless.

  3. how does one produce "wealth"?

    It seems there are a number of things going on. The main two are -

    the ability to secure a larger proportion of the world's resources for oneself or ones group
    the creation of utility (as we were discussing)

    I wonder if the total "wealth" of nations can reasonably be approximated by the amount of resources (in particular fuel) that are available to them.

    anyway, once we have specifically defined what creation of welth is we can discard what we dont want to include i nthe definition.


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