Distributive justice is an approach to social justice that concerns itself with the distribution of goods, resources, power, wealth, and other resources throughout society.
This approach aims for a society where all people have fair access to resources. Often, it requires redistribution, where people who have amassed great resources return those resources to society in order for underprivileged groups to access them.
For example, distributive justice can involve progressive taxation, affirmative action, universal healthcare, and universal basic income as means for distributing resources to people who would otherwise lack access.
Distributive Justice Definition
The challenge of distributive justice is differences in opinion about how to fairly distribute or redistribute resources around a society.
Frontera et al. (2019) demonstrate this challenge in their definition of distributive justice:
“Distributive justice refers to the distribution of resources and responsibilities fairly across society. Again, what is considered fair is important to define.”
So, we have varying understandings of distributive justice. Forsyth (2006), for instance, presents six types of distributive justice:
- Equality: In this conception, everyone gets the same as everyone else, regardless of input. For example, everyone would be paid the same wage – from janitor to CEO, which helps decrease social inequality in terms of wealth.
- Equity: In this conception, distribution of resources is based upon inputs. People who contribute more, work harder, or have more valuable skills get more than people who contribute less. Tension exists on how to define each variable in this model (see also: equity vs equality).
- Power: Those with more power (in the form of authority, status, or control) are seen as deserving more than those without power. E.g. the CEO gets to work from home, but demands everyone else work at the office.
- Need: Resources are distributed based upon need rather than contribution. We might see this in a family, where a sick child gets more attention and resources than the rest of the family because that child is in most need at that point in time.
- Responsibility/Egalitarian: Summed up by ‘with great power comes great responsibility’, this approach suggests the most privileged have greatest responsibilities to the rest of the group. E.g. progressive taxation.
- Entitlement norm: All members of the group are entitled to certain resources or privileges, regardless of input. For example, universal healthcare suggests healthcare is an entitlement regardless of wealth.
- Utilitarian norm: Resources and benefits should be distributed in the manner that maximizes overall happiness of the group, rather than focusing on individual fairness or equality. This can be perverse, e.g. if more overall happiness or satisfaction is derived from building a theme park than a hospital, the theme park gets built.
Origins of Distributive Justice
Distributive justice is based upon a particular reading of the social contract theory (Rawls, 1971), which holds that members of a society are in an (explicit or implicit) contract with one another which binds them together as a society. This contract, for example, may include agreements to abide by the law, pay taxes, and support the needy through social services.
Distributive Justice Examples
1. Public Education
The concept of public education, funded by taxpayers, generally refers to the idea that all children, regardless of their family’s wealth or status, deserves to be educated in order to receive a fighting chance in life.
Generally, this requires taxation then distribution of resources according to population demographics.
Various nations have different models, reflecting differing approaches to freedom and communitarianism. For example:
- In Australia, a base public education is provided, but people can get subsidies for sending their children to a private school.
- In some areas of the USA, children are given vouchers to pay for schooling.
- In other areas, there are no subsidies for private education.
This reflects differing understandings of distributive justice.
2. Progressive Taxation
A progressive tax system refers to a system where poorer people pay less tax as a proportion of their income than wealthier people.
This is perhaps the greatest lever of government to achieve redistribution. It underpins a range of other examples in this list, including public education, universal healthcare, and universal basic income.
It is also a real-world application of a range of conceptions of distributive justice, including the utilitarian, need-based, and egalitarian approaches.
Here, for example, are the progressive tax brackets in the UK:
|Taxable Income||You Pay|
|Up to £12,570||0%|
|£12,571 to £50,270||20%|
|£50,271 to £125,140||40%|
3. Social Security Programs
Social security refers to government programs that provide financial assistance to the elderly, unemployed, or disabled.
This approach is an example of a needs-nased conception of distributive justice. It is seen as a communitarian and compassionate approach to supporting members of society who cannot contribute at present.
4. Universal Healthcare
Many countries offer universal healthcare or subsidized healthcare for the less privileged.
The idea here is that we all pay taxes (on a progressive tax scale, see above) and then these pooled resources are distributed to hospitals based upon demographic needs.
The result is that people pay via taxes (based on ability to contribute). and in return, receive services free at the point of service.
This model varies by county, as with most on the list, and may represent completely free hospital services (such as in the UK and Canada), subsidised healthcare, or capped co-pays.
5. Affirmative Action
Affirmative action refers to policies aimed to achieve greater diversity in the workplace or related sectors, with recognition that minority and disadvantaged groups have historically been underrepresented.
The intention is thus to correct historical injustices and systemic biases that have left certain demographic groups underprivileged.
This approach aligns with the responsibility/egalitarian and entitlement norm conceptions of distributive justice.
As an example, in the US, affirmative action can influence college admissions, aiming to level the playing field for students from traditionally marginalized groups. It may also manifest in an aspiration for a company to achieve 50% female representation in the board room by a certain target date.
See Also: Restorative Justice Examples
6. Universal Basic Income (UBI)
Universal Basic Income is a theoretical approach to universal welfare which would guarantee a certain amount of money to every citizen regardless of contribution and without need to pass a means test.
The idea of UBI is to ensure every member of society has enough to cover the basic cost of living and provide financial security. However, most economists argue that this model is practically infeasible and may lead to dire economic consequences such as hyperinflation.
This model aligns with the equality and entitlement norm conceptions of distributive justice.
Pilot programs have been tested in places like Finland, California, and cities in Canada, with varying results.
7. Food Assistance Programs
Food assistance programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in the US, or the World Food Programme globally, aim to alleviate food insecurity among vulnerable populations.
These programs provide recipients with resources to purchase nutritious food, often using a tiered system based on income and need. They align with the need-based conception of distributive justice.
International food assistance aid also reflects global justice, a conception of justice that I explore in my types of justice article.
8. Pay Equality Laws
Pay equality laws are intended to eliminate wage disparities based on gender, race, or other protected characteristics.
They tend to operate based on the acknowledgement that historically, and often still to this day according to several studies, women have experienced a wage gap.
For instance, the Equal Pay Act in the US prohibits wage discrimination on the basis of sex.
These laws align with the equity conception of distributive justice, striving for a society where everyone is paid fairly for the the work they put in, regardless of identity status.
9. Veterans Benefits
Veterans’ benefits refer to services such as free mental healthcare and funds such as a monthly stipend for serving and retired vertans.
These benefits can be seen as a form of equity-based distributive justice because it is an acknowledgment of the extraordinary contributions of those who served their country through its national defense.
10. Public Housing
Public housing programs provide affordable homes to low-income individuals and families.
People who advocate for this example of distributive justice hold that housing and shelter represent fundamental needs, and therefore, should be provided as a right out of the community’s pooled resource (e.g. tax base).
By ensuring that housing is accessible regardless of income, these programs uphold the need-based and entitlement norm conceptions of distributive justice.
They also serve as a tool to combat homelessness and provide stability for underprivileged groups.
11. Environmental Regulations
Environmental regulations, such as pollution limits or carbon taxes, can be seen as a form of distributive justice, but also fit into a unique form of justice known as environmental justice.
The focus of environmental regulations is to protect shared natural resources, ensure all members of a society have access to a healthy environment, and (especially in the environmental injustice approach specifically) refer to the responsibility of polluters to ensure marginalized groups don’t disproportionately suffer from their actions.
This approach can align with the utilitarian norm conception of distributive justice, promoting the greatest good for the greatest number, as well as the equality conception – that is, that we are all entitled to a clean environment regardless of our contribution to society.
12. Child Support and Alimony Laws
Child support and alimony laws represent redistributive justice on an individual level. These laws require parents to financially support their children or ex-spouses after a separation or divorce.
These laws are based on the principles of need and equity.
The person with greater financial resources is often obliged to support those with less, ensuring the well-being of all family members. Generally, it holds that a child should be no worse off after a separation than before, as this would be considered unjust.
13. Bankruptcy Laws
Bankruptcy laws represent a controversial approach to distributive justice that provides a legal process for discharging debts when individuals or businesses cannot pay what they owe.
They protect people from indefinite financial ruin, providing an opportunity to start fresh.
This can be seen as a form of distributive justice, given that the burden of the debts tends to land on the government, who will need to distribute some of the common funds to clearing the business or individual’s debt.
14. Disability Support
Disability support includes social services and financial assistance provided to individuals with physical or mental disabilities.
It might include accessibility mandates, direct financial support, or subsidised services.
This approach aligns with a rather uncontroversial need-based and entitlement norm conceptions of distributive justice, recognizing that people with disabilities may require additional support to participate fully in society, and that they are often materially unable to ‘step up’ and contribute on the same level as others.
15. Minimum Wage
Minimum wage laws set the lowest pay that workers can legally receive.
These laws aim to ensure that even the lowest-paid workers earn enough to meet their basic needs, which aligns with the need-based and equity conceptions of distributive justice.
However, it’s worth noting that most minimum wages fall below living wages, which would more fully meet a distributive justice approach to wge laws.
Wage laws can also reflect an equality approach if the minimum wage is set at a level that is deemed minimally fair for any and all work undertaken. Such an approach is proposed, for example, in the gig economy, where eventually there may be tests to ensure people don’t work for below minimum wage even if they’re self-employed.
There are countless examples of distributive justice, with the above 15 just scratching the surface of the potential ways in which justice can be distributed by a legitimate authority in a democratic nation that shares a social contract. The main problem with this approach is being able to define and agree upon a conception of what fair distribution looks like, balancing the needs of the underprivileged against the freedoms of the privileged to live and earn without burdensome taxation, which may disincentivize work and cause lower productivity in society.
Forsyth, D.(2006). “Conflict.” in D. Forsyth. (Ed.) Group Dynamics (pp. 388–89), Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.
Frontera, W. R., DeLisa, J. A., Gans, B. M., Walsh, N. E., Robinson, L. R., & Basford, J. (2010). Physical medicine and rehabilitation: principles and practice. North Carolina: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins Health.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]