Distributive Justice Patterns

Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

In this lesson, we will identify and discuss some of the patterns of economic distribution including: egalitarianism, the difference principle, welfare-based principles, desert-based principles, and libertarian principles.


John Kenneth Galbraith, a Canadian economist and diplomat, said, ''Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it's just the opposite.'' Distributive justice patterns are the principles by which resources are allocated across society. These resources may include income, wealth, opportunity, and/or jobs. Let's examine some examples of distributive justice patterns.


Egalitarianism is a simplistic approach to distributive justice that uses the principle that all resources should be equally distributed among all people. One of the issues with egalitarianism is that not everyone wants the same things. If everyone is given a house on five acres of land and a herd of cows, some will want to trade that in for an apartment in a high-rise in the city. Another issue with egalitarianism is maintenance. For example, if all college graduates are granted $100,000, five years later some will have built that into a successful business, some will have blown it all, and others will still have about the same amount. The choices people make, and sometimes sheer luck, create inequalities over time.

The Difference Principle

The difference principle which was developed by John Rawls in the 1970s suggests that rights and opportunities should be allocated equally among members of society; however, differences in income and assets may exist to motivate people to strive for the economic success that is available to them.

Welfare-Based Principles

Welfare-based principles, such as utilitarianism, operate on the premise that fair isn't necessarily equal. The primary goal is to provide all parties with what is needed to make them happy and to avoid discomfort. In some cases, this may mean redistributing wealth. In other words, some may be forced to make sacrifices without consent so that others may benefit. Implementation is an issue because there is not a single formula for determining the needs of all people.

Desert-Based Principles

Desert-based principles focus on the distribution of the economy based on what people have earned. This principle advocates financial rewards for those who work hard and contribute to society. Payment is distributed based on the value that others in the community place on the work that is done. This is capitalism at its finest. The criticism of desert-based principles is that some people benefit from entitlements rather than contributions. Many of the factors that contribute to economic success under desert-based principles are not within control of individual members of society, such as luck and birth rite. Yet, other factors of personal responsibility, such as completing education and training programs and working hard are within the control of each individual.

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