Document Type



A revision of the March 8, 2008 version.


It is common for legal theorists and policy analysts to think and communicate mainly in maximizing terms. What is less common is for them to notice that each time we speak explicitly of socially maximizing one thing, we speak implicitly of distributing another thing and equalizing yet another thing. We also, moreover, effectively define ourselves and our fellow citizens by reference to that which we equalize; for it is in virtue of the latter that our social welfare formulations treat us as “counting” for purposes of socially aggregating and maximizing.

To attend systematically to the inter-translatability of maximization language on the one hand, equalization and identification language on the other, is to “take distribution seriously.” It is to recognize explicitly, and to trace the important normative consequences that stem from, the fact that all law and policy are as distributive and citizen-defining as they are aggregative. It is also to recognize therefore that all law and policy treat us as equals in some respects – respects in terms of which they identify and “count” us as politically relevant – and as non-equals in other respects. Attending explicitly to these “respects” brings transparency about the degrees to which our laws and policies identify, “count,” and treat us as equals in the right respects.

This Article accordingly seeks to lay out with care how to take distribution seriously in legal and policy analysis. It does so by two means, keyed to the principal guises in which distribution is typically implicated in legal and policy analysis: First, by careful attention to the internal structures of the social welfare functions favored by most present-day legal theorists and policy analysts. And second, by systematic reference to what linguists call the “cognitive grammar” of non-formal distributive language, a structure that mirrors the structure of distribution itself. The payoffs include both a workable method by which systematically to test proposed maximization norms for their normative propriety, and an attractive distributive ethic that can serve as an ethically intelligible normative touchstone for legal and policy analysis.

Date of Authorship for this Version

July 2008