Equivocation and Caricature

The New York Times for 2 January 2011 featured an open letter from Professor N. Gregory Mankiw ostensibly to President Obama.  One section of that letter follows:

“STOP TRYING TO SPREAD THE WEALTH Ever since your famous exchange with Joe the Plumber, it has been clear that you believe that the redistribution of income is a crucial function of government. A long philosophical tradition supports your view. It includes John Rawls’s treatise “A Theory of Justice,” which concludes that the main goal of public policy should be to transfer resources to those at the bottom of the economic ladder.

“Many Republicans, however, reject this view of the state. From their perspective, it is not the proper role of government to fix the income distribution in an attempt to achieve some utopian vision of fairness. They believe, instead, that in a free society, people make money when they produce goods and services that others value, and that, as a result, what they earn is rightfully theirs.

“This view also has a long intellectual tradition. The libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick has suggested revising the old leftist slogan ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’ to ‘From each as they choose, to each as they are chosen.’ ”

Not only did Dr. Mankiw wise me up about John Rawls’ theory of justice — I thought I had read that book but I did not recall the part that Dr. Mankiw relayed — but Dr. Mankiw also informed me that someone favors fixing  the income distribution to achieve utopian fairness.  With this latter lesson I had some problems.  Since utopian fairness is by definition unachievable, Dr. Mankiw’s someone must be very foolish.  Since “fixing” is in Dr. Mankiw’s letter equivocation, I cannot be certain what Dr. Mankiw is asserting.  Dr. Mankiw seemed to have caricatured a position that no one holds.  President Obama does not hold that view, so I wonder what this passage was doing in Professor Mankiw’s letter.


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