International Redistribution Should be Taken Seriously: the Catalan Independence Movement Shows Us Why

Some argue that the world is heading towards equality. Surely, there are more democratic states in the world than ever before, yet equality on the international scale seems to be neglected. In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty makes the prediction that global inequality of wealth will only continue to increase. Those who believe in equality, or specifically in that all human beings are equally deserving in a fundamental, moral way, should find this increasing global inequality problematic. Though many states implement different forms of redistribution schemes within their domestic spheres today, little redistribution is done on the international scale. In this age of growing global inequality, what is holding wealthy states back from sharing their wealth beyond their state borders? The case of the Catalan independence movement illuminates what is at stake: examining the economic motive behind the movement through the Rawlsian lens suggests that the motive for independence is selfish and illegitimate. On the other hand, the cultural and political motives for independence questions the legitimacy of the state borders in determining to whom a redistribution should apply. If we truly believe in equality, who should be part of redistribution? In this paper, the case of the Catalan independence movement is examined through the Rawlsian lens to highlight the moral arbitrariness of state borders in dictating the application of redistributive schemes, which demands that redistribution be done regardless of state borders.

Catalonia is the wealthiest region out of all 17 autonomous regions in Spain.2 Each region has a different degree of autonomy; although some regions are allowed fiscal independence, i.e. having their own taxation system, Catalonia does not collect its own tax but is a part of Spain’s taxation system, which redistributes wealth from richer regions like Catalonia to poorer ones., Many Catalans are unhappy with this taxation system since they believe that they pay a disproportionately high amount of tax for the public services they get in return such as social security.2.3 Since 2009, during which Spain experienced a financial crisis, there has been a strong belief that Catalans can be better off economically without the rest of Spain, which fuels the separatist movement.3,

The economic motive behind the movement can be seen as unjust by Rawls’ theory of justice due to the moral arbitrariness of Catalonia being wealthier than the rest of Spain and the rest of Spain being poorer. In A Theory of Justice, John Rawls, a prominent egalitarian theorist, argues that inequality is morally troubling: some possessing more socially beneficial goods such as inheritance than others is purely based on luck, which entails that no one truly deserves what they possess in a fundamental, moral way. Given this moral arbitrariness of distribution, Rawls postulates an assembly of rational individuals that aims to come up with just distributive principles; the rational individuals are completely blind to their social positions, relationship to other people, natural abilities, and so on in order not to be biased when determining the principles. In other words, not knowing one’s circumstances in society forces the individual to put themselves in others’ shoes and regard justice from the most disadvantaged groups. Those rational individuals, concerned with ending up as the worst-off in society, will choose principles that will benefit those with the least socially beneficial goods. He terms this principle as the difference principle, which demands that inequality is only permissible if it benefits the worst off through redistribution. The taxation system currently in place between Spain and Catalonia can be seen as Rawls’ difference principle at play. Rawls would argue that Catalonia’s having more wealth than the rest of Spain is due to luck; the rest of Spain being poorer is also due to brute luck. Rawls’ conception of just and fair redistribution works in a way that compensates the morally arbitrary effects of luck. Thus, it is just for Catalonia, or whoever benefits from their fortunate circumstances, to adhere to the difference principle for the benefit of those with brute luck.

Some might object that still, Catalans are entitled to the product of their hard work and that it is just for them to claim the wealth for themselves. Rawls, however, argues that due to the complexity of how goods are produced in a society through social cooperation, each individual’s contribution to the total benefits gained in society cannot be clearly identified. That is, it is nearly impossible to identify certain products of social cooperation as belonging exclusively to certain individuals. For instance, Catalans having more wealth could not have been achieved without the cooperation of the rest of Spain, which follows that the rest of Spain has indeed contributed to the Catalans’ wealth. Even if it were to be argued that Catalans do morally deserve their wealth, Catalans wanting to opt out of this redistributive scheme to leave the poorer parts of Spain and contain their wealth can be seen as selfish and unjust given that their wealth is not their own. Thus, examined through Rawls’ principles of justice, Catalans’ economic motive for separation is illegitimate since it ignores the moral arbitrariness of distribution and their wealth not entirely being their own. However, if one argues that the state border of Spain is unjustly drawn to include Catalonia, would having this economic motive to separate be just? What does society mean in the first place?

Consideration of the cultural and political justifications of independence raises the question of who to be included in the redistributive scheme and reveals the arbitrariness of determining the boundary of redistribution based on state borders. In the Theory of Justice, Rawls assumes that the redistribution will be done in a “society” without discussing the definition of “society”; he takes it for granted that the boundary of “society” is both just and undisputed and conceives society as self-contained. The notion of a state, whose boundary acts, in today’s world, as an absolute line beyond which the demand for equality seems to strangely disappear, does not qualify for Rawls’ notion of “society”. States are not isolated islands: in this age of globalization, there is a constant flow of ideas, culture, and money across the state borders. They are far from being self-contained but are largely permeable. Moreover, boundaries of states are frequently disputed and thus differ across time. It is absurd to rely on these state borders as what dictate who should be included in a redistribution scheme. In other words, those boundaries lack any moral basis in determining the spheres of redistribution. This argument follows that the border of Spain should not be the basis of redistribution. Then, can distinct cultural groups such as Catalonia be the basis?

Distribution based on distinct cultural groups with political aims also contradicts the fairness of the just principles of redistribution. Catalonia is said to have its distinct language and culture, which creates the sense of solidarity and desire for self-determination among them. If this cultural cohesion is to be the boundary of redistribution, i.e. Catalonia opting out of Spain’s redistributive scheme, it leads to a problematic conclusion that even though moral arbitrariness of Catalans’ having more wealth and the rest of Spain being poorer does not change after the separation, the demand for equality disappears beyond the cultural boundary. This is precisely what Rawls aims to prevent by forcing rational individuals to be blind to their specific circumstances in society when deciding just redistributive principles in the hypothetical assembly mentioned above. Considering the possibility of them being excluded from wealthy cultural groups, those rational individuals will not choose such principles that allow wealthy cultural groups to contain their wealth amongst themselves since it would be unfair for poorer groups. This implies that though Catalonia could separate from Spain politically as another state, the distinctiveness of culture and its will to self-determination does not legitimize their opting-out from the redistributive scheme. Doing so means that they are acting out of selfishness, violating the fairness of the distributive principle.

The examination of the Catalan independence movement has revealed that neither the state boundaries nor the cultural groups have the moral basis in determining the spheres of redistribution, which instead suggests the globe as the sphere of redistribution. The boundary of the globe is not arbitrary in that it is self-contained and undisputed (at least for now that we have not encountered any aliens), which aligns with the Rawls’ notion of “society”. It also does not exclude any human being, which should be the premise of the assembly of the rational, blinded individuals in determining just and fair redistributive principles if one truly believes in the equality of the human species, i.e. everyone is equally non-deserving. It must be argued that all boundaries within the globe are arbitrary in dictating boundaries of redistribution. That is, limiting redistribution to only within the arbitrary drawn, largely permeable boundaries goes against the belief in human equality.


Works Cited

Boylan, Brandon M. “In pursuit of independence: the political economy of Catalonia’s    secessionist movement.” Nations and nationalism 21.4 (2015): 761-785.

“Catalonia profile – Timeline.”  BBC NEWS [London] 14 May 2018

Muñoz and Tormos, 2015 J. Muñoz, R. Tormos Economic expectations and support for secession in Catalonia:  between causality and rationalization Eur. Polit. Sci. Rev., 7 (2) (2015), pp. 315-341

Piketty, Thomas, and Arthur Goldhammer. Capital in the Twenty-first Century. Cambridge Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Rawls. The Belknap, 1971.

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Articles were originally submitted as course papers for Professor Sandra Field’s classes Contemporary Egalitarianism and Democratic Theory.

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