My tradition on this blog is to take a break (mostly!) from current events in the later part of August. Instead, I pre-schedule daily posts based on things I read during the year about three of my preoccupations: economics, academia, and writing.


One of the most famous Marxist statements of how an economy should work is: “From each according to his ability; To each according to his needs.” But Marx’s comment (from his posthumously published “Critique of the Gotha Programme”) was not original to him. There are earlier versions in the writings of Étienne Cabet and Louis Blanc.

Luc Bovens and Adrien Lutz trace the origins of the Marxist slogan, and compare it with two other common socialist slogans in “`From Each according to Ability;
To Each according to Needs’: Origin, Meaning, and Development of Socialist Slogans” (History of Political Economy, 2019, 51:2, pp. 237-257). At the beginning of their essay, they write:

There are three slogans in the history of socialism that are very close
in wording, namely, the famous slogan of Étienne Cabet, Louis Blanc,
and Karl Marx: From each according to his ability; To each according
to his needs
; the earlier Henri de Saint-Simon and Constantin Pecqueur
slogan: To each according to his ability; To each according to his works;
and the later slogan in the Soviet Constitution of 1936, referred to as the
Stalin constitution: From each according to his ability; To each according
to his work.

As Bovens and Lutz point out, the elements of all of these slogans are deeply Christian and can be found in Biblical texts, and I will reproduce two of their tables here:

Bovens and Lutz offer an in-depth discussion of what the authors of these discussions meant, which I will not try to summarize here. Instead, I’ll offer a few obvious questions.

1) Ability is to both given and developed. Thus, if what is given is to be derived from ability, some obvious questions for an economist would include: Who determines ability? Who invests in developing ability? Who decides whether a sufficient amount has been given? In some socialist countries, children are identified for potential athletic ability at young ages and sent to training camps to develop that ability. Should this be the broader social model for determining what is meant by “from each, according to ability”? In a number of the Biblical references, those with greater ability were given additional resources, in the belief that using those resources wisely was in the broader social interest.

2) The idea that people should receive according to their need is obviously different than the idea that they should receive according to their work. There is an obvious question for economists of how the determination of “need” will be made.

3) Receiving according to “works” or “work” raises obvious questions. The authors argue that “works” referred everything a person invested in creation of the social good, including ability, capital, and labor. The later reference “according to work” that went from the Bible to the Soviet Constitution refers to the effort and efficiency of labor alone. A final obvious question is how the value of “work” or “works” will be determined.

For contrast to these slogans, consider the alternative proposed by the libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick in his classic 1974 work Anarchy, State, Utopia. Nozick write:

To think that the task of a theory of distributive justice is to fill in the blank in “to each according to his _______” is to be predisposed to search for a pattern; and the separate treatment of “from each according to his _______” treats production and distribution as two separate issues.”

However, Nozick suggest that in the real world, looking for a pattern to fill in the first blank is a mistake. He writes:

The set of holdings that results when some persons receive their marginal products, others win at gambling, others receive a share of their mate’s income, others receive gifts from foundations, others receive interest on loans, others receive gifts from admirers, others receive return on investment, others make for themselves much of what they have, others find things, and so on, will not be patterned.

Nozick argues that we can understand how these outcomes arise, as a result of initial distributions of assets and then choices that are made, but that trying to categorize the result as a pattern based on “needs” or “works” or “work” or “ability” is not a useful exercise. He proposes a usefully provocative alternative slogan:

[W]e might say:

From each according to what he chooses to do, to each according to what he makes or himself (perhaps with the contracted aid of others) and what others choose to do for him an dchoose to give him of what they’ve been given previously (under this this maxim) and haven’t yet expended or transferred.

This, the discerning reader will have noticed, has its defects as a slogan. So as a summary and great simplification (and not as a maxim with any independent meaning) we have:

From each as they choose, to each as they are chosen.

I don’t find Nozick’s formulation fully satisfactory, but I suppose this just means that I agree with point that no single pattern will fully capture distributive justice. Of course, Nozick’s slogan lacks the sense of duty and social obligation, and thus an element of the moral commandment and prophetic force, embodied in the previous slogans. But it does highlight the reality when it comes to terms like “ability,” “need,” and “work,” there is not some overarching being, whether God or government, to determine such values, resolve any potential conflicts between them, and announce what should be.

Instead, Nozick is emphasizing that there is value in people being able to make choices, and people being free to respond to the choices of others. To put it another way, this view of social welfare isn’t based on just looking at outcomes like the distribution of work and of consumption. Instead, it’s based on looking at range the choices that people have available to them. Although Nozick is not using his slogan in this way, I would argue that social welfare is increased when there is social and government support for people to be able to make a wider range of choices, including support in gaining education and skills, and in helping people to pick themselves back up when life has gone badly. But there is also a social discipline here: your choices will be rewarded, or not, to the extent that you provide goods and services that are, in turn, chosen by others.