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“Rationing Scarce Things Equitably According To Need”: Is This Really Desirable?


Most people would love to live in an egalitarian society in which the economy was based on the principle, “From each according to reasonable ability, to each according to need or reasonable desire.” But when people hear the last phrase of this egalitarian principle, “with scarce things rationed according to need in an equitable manner” they wonder if this would really be desirable. 


The word "rationing" conjures up negative images sometimes. Perhaps it's because rationing is only necessary when there is scarcity, and who likes scarcity? Perhaps it's because we think of wartime rationing during WWII, which was unpleasant.


Rationing, however, is something that goes on today in ways that we often don't even think of as "rationing" and to which we have no objection.


For example, a popular fancy restaurant very likely rations its tables because there are more people who want to eat there on a given evening than the restaurant can serve. There is thus a scarcity of served meals at the restaurant. How are the meals rationed? Typically the rationing is by either first-come-first-served or by reservations according to first-call-first-priority. This is, in a sense, rationing according to need but with the assumption that everybody's need for a fancy restaurant meal is the same.

Library books are similarly rationed: first-come-first-priority.


We also ration donated human organs for transplant, such as kidneys and livers and hearts. Here the rationing is according to  need, where one component of need is the ability to make use of the transplant (e.g., how long one may be expected to live with it) and we know that people are not all the same in this regard. 


Most people think these examples of rationing are entirely proper and more desirable than any alternative. So let’s not dismiss rationing as something necessarily undesirable.


Today Almost Everything Is Rationed, But We Don’t Notice It


On the other hand, there is a terribly undesirable kind of rationing that takes place in our present society so frequently and ubiquitously that we don't even perceive it as "rationing." This is rationing according to wealth: the more scarce a product or service is, the greater its price and only people who can afford to buy it get it. The more that a product or service is needed, the more obviously unjust it is to ration it this way, according to wealth instead of need. This is why virtually everybody would be outraged if donated organs were sold to the highest bidder.


In today's society the only things that are not rationed, one way or another (according to need or wealth), are things that are freely available to anybody any time: the air we breathe, the use of non-toll roads (ignoring the cost of one's vehicle), enjoyment of "the great outdoors" (ignoring the cost of getting there and having what it takes to enjoy it), the radio and T.V. and web content that is available "for free" (ignoring the cost of one's T.V. or radio or computer or internet provider), etc. 


Most products and services in an economy--any kind of economy, capitalist or Communist or egalitarian--are inevitably rationed in the sense that the economy can only produce so much of anything, and so to have more of this entails a rationing decision to have less of that. Whatever the manner (be it the free market, or a dictator or egalitarian equitable rationing according to need) by which it is decided how much of this or that to produce and who will receive it, the result is rationing.  When, for example, the decision is made to produce more multi-million dollar luxury yachts and mansions, and fewer inexpensive but nice homes, this is rationing according to wealth because the needs of multi-millionaires trump the needs of poor people.

Most things are thus rationed at the production end (where a decision is made how much or little of it to produce) and also, if they are at all scarce, at the receiving end (where the decision is made who can have some of what is produced.)


This is why we do indeed need to ration even something so necessary as health care. If, in attempting to avoid rationing health care, we had every single person engaged in providing health care, then we would not have schools, or food production and distribution, or shelters constructed and so forth. The limitation to the amount of health care that any society can provide means that the question is not whether to ration it, but how to ration it: according to wealth? Or need? Or some other criterion? 


Egalitarianism says that scarce things should be equitably rationed--to those who contribute according to reasonable ability--according to their need, in a reasonable manner decided by the Local Assembly of egalitarians. For things such as seating at a fancy restaurant this would likely mean rationing it the same way it's rationed today (but with everybody being equally able to “afford”[1] the meal.) For things such as donated organs it would also likely mean rationing them the same way as today (minus the corruption that money may introduce today.)


But for most things the rationing--at both the production end and the receiving end--would be according to need or reasonable desire of those who contribute reasonably according to ability. Because of this rationing at the production end many things will be abundant enough (construction labor won't be diverted to making huge luxury yachts and mansions when lots of people still lack decent homes to live in) so that no explicit rationing is required at the receiving end. These are the products and services that are free for the reasonable taking by those in the sharing economy that produced them (i.e., by those who have contributed reasonably to that sharing economy.) 


For things that, despite rationing according to need at the production end, are still too scarce for everybody (who contributes reasonably) to have as much as they need or reasonably desire, there will be rationing at the receiving end also. This rationing will be according to need and by a reasonable equitable manner determined by the Local Assembly of egalitarians. If there is a more desirable way to handle inevitable scarcity of some things, I do not know what it is.



[1] People wouldn’t pay for the meal; they would be equal in the sense of having an equal right to enjoy the meal if they got a reservation. If they hogged such reservations, however, they might risk gaining a reputation as a hog and eventually losing their membership in the sharing economy.

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