Why Sufficientarianism is Even Less Defensible than Egalitarianism


I was thrilled a few weeks ago to be told by a Rawlsian scholar at my school about the theory of sufficientarianism. Sufficientarians, unlike their egalitarian counterparts are not concerned with the equality of material wealth, but are rather concerned with whether everyone has “enough”. As we will see from a later section of this article, while “enough” can constitute a great number of things the theory of suffientarianism is that some minimum sufficiency threshold for material wealth is selected and everyone has a right to that minimum level of wealth.

Why was I so thrilled to hear about this theory? Because for years I have been upset with the formulations that I have found everywhere about what every man has a “right” to. A right to food, a right to shelter, a right to electricity, a right to running water, a right to a cell phone, a right to urban mobility, you name it. To me, there were always glaringly obvious problems with the formulations of these rights and it was these problems forced me to question the consistencies of particular non-libertarian theories of distributive justice. Now, finally, I have a name for those formulations. In this brief article, I am going to offer two arguments why the sufficientarian formulation of rights is indefensible in ways which the egalitarian can defend their theories of distributive justice.

Sufficientarian Rights are Not Universalizable

My first qualm with sufficientarianism is that not everyone can necessarily have their rights satisfied all at once. The first problem arises when we consider a Crusoe economy. Suppose that Crusoe is alone on his island. And, according to some sufficientarian, Crusoe has a right to three fish a day. Who is going to provide that to Crusoe? If he should sit on the island all day, never nearing the water to go fishing, then certainly he cannot actually satisfy his own right.

The problem is not made easier with the introduction of Friday onto the island. Once Friday arrives, on the island, neither can have their right to three fish a day satisfied without someone actually fishing. Both have a right to three fish on account of them being people regardless of whether they fish or not. Perhaps we might say that Friday has a duty to fish for both Crusoe and himself (catching six fish per day) but now our law is no longer universalizable. Now only Crusoe has a sufficientarian right while no such right exists for Friday who only has a right to fish insofar as he catches them.

The egalitarian, on the other hand, does not have such difficulties with defending his theory. The egalitarian can say, “Surely neither have a right to fish simply by their personhood, but if one of them does catch fish, then he must give [some percentage, say 50%] of those fish to the other.” Here, the egalitarian can universalize their claim. ‘All men have a right to an equal share of that which is produced by any other’ or something along those lines.

Sufficientarian Rights Render All Past Peoples Unjust

As I have mentioned before, there are many sufficiency thresholds that a sufficientarian might choose. Anyone who is familiar with the political rhetoric surrounding a minimum wage must be familiar with the phrase, “a living wage”. And what’s included in this living wage? Here is one viral clip of Democratic Representative Katie Porter asking CEO of JPMorgan Chase, James Dimon, how a woman is able to live off of the salary that JPMorgan Chase pays her. The living expenses listed by Ms. Porter include a one-bedroom apartment in Irvine, California, utilities, a mini van and its corollary expenses, a “low-cost food plan” according to the United States Department of Agriculture (which, interestingly enough, is not the cheapest food plan listed by the USDA as you can see here), a cell phone and cell phone plan, and after school child care.

Suppose that this is the sufficientarian threshold for how much a person has a right to. The sufficientarian is faced with the problem of explaining how it is that this doctrine of distributive justice could have been defended say, two-hundred years ago, when no one could afford these things (not to mention the fact that some of them had yet to be invented). Walter Block, while debating Bill Quigley on the minimum wage, retorts this:

Justice is timeless. Notice that we’re talking about a living wage nowadays. A living wage nowadays means you can have a color TV, you can have air conditioning, you can have a radio, you have a little car, maybe a motor scooter, nice clothes from Walmart. But justice is timeless. Now if it really is just to require a living wage at the standards of 2015, then it would be equally just in 1915, 1815, 1715. Now in 1715, nobody had a living wage of the sort that we now have. Even rich people didn’t have dentistry, didn’t have modern medical things. So everyone in the past was unjust?

The point made by Block is an important one and shows why the sufficientarian formulation of rights seems absurd. Do we really want to say that it is only now with our modern inventions and modern level of prosperity (not to mention that the enforcement of sufficientarian rights may make impossible the social conditions under which these criteria of technology and wealth are even possible) that we are able to be just at all? Certainly not!

The egalitarian, on the other hand, does not have this problem. He can simply claim that no one has a right to any particular resource or amount of wealth, but rather, every man is entitled to a certain amount of the existing wealth in society.

Obviously, I am no egalitarian. But I certainly find the notion of equality more appealing on the surface that the notion of sufficiency.

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