Concern with material equality as the central form of distributive justice is a very modern idea. Distributive justice for Aristotle and many other writers for millennia after him was a matter of distributing what each ought to get from merit or desert in some sense. The idea of equality was arguably anathema to Aristotle and most other theorists, including Catholic philosophers, until modern times, indeed until the nineteenth century.
A common view was that social hierarchy and its attendant inequality was natural. This inference was likely little more than a naturalistic fallacy of deriving ought from is, but it seemed compelling to most writers. In the seventeenth century, the Levellers in England pushed for equality as essentially a Christian requirement. But theirs was an odd voice in the history of concern with justice before the recent era. David Hume, writing about 1751, saw distributive justice in the modern sense as pernicious.
He attributed concern with such an abstract principle to writers who argued from pure reason with no attention to the possibilities of their actual world and to such religious fanatics as the Levellers (discussed further below). Although he may have had a lingering commitment to arguments from merit, his actual statement of the problems with egalitarian distribution could hardly be more modern in its arguments. He wrote that: ideas of perfect equality . . .are really, at bottom, impracticable; and were they not so, would be extremely pernicious to human society.
Render possessions ever so equal, men’s different degrees of art, care, and industry will immediately break that equality. Or if you check these virtues, you reduce society to the most extreme indigence; and instead of preventing want and beggary in a few, render it unavoidable to the whole community. The most rigorous inquisition too is requisite to watch every inequality on its first appearance; and the most severe jurisdiction, to punish and redress it.
But besides, that so much authority must soon degenerate into tyranny, and be exerted with great partialities; who can possibly be possessed of it, in such a situation as here supposed? Perfect equality of possessions, destroying all subordination, weakens extremely the authority of the magistracy, and must reduce all power nearly to a level, as well as property. (Hume 1975, p. 194) In this passage, Hume raises three of the standard arguments against equality, which can be stated in contemporary vocabulary as follows.
First, giving a potentially capricious government of knaves the power to achieve equality gives it the power to do much else, including very undesirable, tyrannous things. Second, equality entails reduced incentives to those who are especially productive and leads to a trade-off between equality and efficiency of production (Okun 1975). Finally, hierarchy, and hence likely inequality, is virtually necessary for achieving many desirable social goals, including simple order.
Hume canvassed these problems after first granting a view, later developed by F. Y. Edgeworth (1881) and other utilitarians, that, with typical inequality, we must “rob the poor of more satisfaction than we add to the rich, and that the slight gratification of a frivolous vanity, in one individual, frequently costs more than bread to many families, and even provinces” (Hume 1975, p 194). Despite this clear, essentially utilitarian appeal of equality, however, he thought it a bad idea because impracticable to achieve.
Incidentally, Hume demolished Aristotle’s and other’s views of distributive justice based on merit as also utterly impracticable. Hence, he supposed, “the civil magistrate very justly puts these sublime theorists on the same footing with common robbers, and teaches them by the severest discipline, that a rule, which, in speculation, may seem the most advantageous to society, may yet be found, in practice, totally pernicious and destructive” (Hume 1975, p.193). In essence, he plumped for laissez-faire distributive justice.
This is not quite the libertarian justice of, say, Robert Nozick (1974), because it depends merely on what happens and not on whether the way things happen meets some pristine libertarian or other principle. Hume also argued against the direct application of a utilitarian principle as a short-sighted violation of principles of justice: