Wealth Inequality: The Hobgoblin Of The Liberal Mind
by Jim Greenfield
“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
President Obama has sought to distract attention from the Obamacare train wreck, and the consequent election disaster looming for Democrats, by harking back to the favorite perennial shibboleth of governmentalists everywhere: wealth inequality. (The term “governmentalist” includes all statist ideologies: liberal, progressive, social democrat, socialist, or communist because frankly I can’t tell much difference between ‘em.) The specter of “wealth inequality” is ever lurking in the background whenever governmentalists of every ilk discuss domestic policy. Wealth inequality is what all liberal/progressive policies are about. They always want to raise taxes on the rich, i.e. anybody who makes more money than whoever happens to be speaking, and always want to give more government handouts to the “needy.” The wealth levelers’ solution to the inequality problem is always the same: expand the power of politicians and government bureaucrats by redistributing wealth.
The irony is that the most prominent governmentalist in the world, Barrack Obama, has done more to increase wealth inequality than anyone in history. Under the policies of the Obama administration, median household income, i.e. the wages of middle and working class families, have significantly declined. Median wages are down 4.4% or $2400 per year per family since Obama took office. (see Robert Pear, New York Times online 8/21/13).
As working class wages have gone down, the stock market has soared. The Dow closed on 2/28/14 at 16,321, two and a half times higher than its bottom of 6,547 in March of 2009, shortly after Obama took office. During the same period, the S &P 500 has risen 2.75 fold. In other words, the investor class has seen their portfolios go up by more than 250% during the same period that middle class working folks have seen a substantial decline in their wages. Paradoxically, this huge increase in wealth inequality has taken place under a President who loudly proclaims that wealth inequality is the most important problem of our time.
Why has wealth become so unequal under Obama? Because the Obama Administration has an array of anti-business policies including higher taxes, an exploding national debt, expanding government regulation, higher welfare state spending, and, of course Obamacare. These anti-business policies have not hurt crony capitalists and the super-rich, but they’ve hit the middle class hard, damaged small main street businesses, discouraged hiring, and depressed wages. At the same time the Federal Reserve has pumped literally trillions of dollars of digitally created currency (not to be confused with bitcoin) into large banks and wall street firms, driving up stock and bond prices. The Fed stimulus of these asset classes have made the rich richer, insulating them from Obama’s depressive policies that have so afflicted middle class working folks.
But my purpose isn’t to criticize Obama policies that exacerbate wealth inequality, or to highlight the ironic hypocrisy of Obama’s de facto war on the middle class. Because the truth is that “frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn” about wealth inequality. See I don’t share the governmentalist view that wealth inequality is a huge problem. For governmentalists wealth inequality is just another excuse to expand government power even further, in the name of leveling the playing field, fairness, equality, or some other lovely sounding egalitarian principle.
But the inconvenient truth is that egalitarian governmentalist policies don’t actually reduce inequality. All they do, in the name of equality, is change the rules about who gets to decide who gets rich and who stays poor. Those at the top of the most egalitarian systems, communist paradises like North Korea, Cuba, or the former Soviet Union, are fabulously wealthy compared to the rest of the population, just like the titans of industry in capitalist countries. The difference is that in socialist and communist countries the super rich acquire their wealth through the exercise of political power, whereas in America guys like, say, George Soros, Warren Buffett, Al Gore, the Clintons, the Bushes, or the guys who started Solyndra, acquire great wealth without political influence. Just kidding.
Actually, the unfortunate truth that political influence is a path to great wealth even in a capitalist country like America is an outgrowth of two factors. First, America isn’t really a capitalist country. Not any more. Forty percent of our gdp is now appropriated by the public sector and is therefore essentially socialistic. And the other sixty percent is heavily regulated and otherwise intertwined with government. What we have isn’t capitalism; it’s a mixture of socialism and crony capitalism, with a few vestiges of real capitalism. Crony capitalism is easily confused with true capitalism, thereby giving capitalism a bad name. Second, the truism that political influence begets wealth is just the way it is, and always has been. This kind of corruption can’t be entirely eliminated but the best way to keep it in check is to limit the power of government and the politicians who control it. Unfortunately the concept of limited Constitutional government is now regarded by the ruling classes as an antiquated and out of vogue notion, which also happens to be an assault on their power. Those of us who advocate Constitutional limits on government power are called extremists and told we lack “compassion.”
The argument against wealth inequality, and by implication in favor of using government power to redistribute wealth, exploits intrinsic human sensibilities about fairness. Most of us intuitively feel that it’s unfair for Bill Gates to have $69 billion, while children starve in the streets. Liberal radio talk host Mark Levine recently confronted me with a stark example. Is it fair, he asked, that the old miser Scrooge from Dickens’ “Christmas Carol,” should have millions, while the poor crippled boy, Tiny Tim, can’t afford surgery to correct his congenital condition? As the “right wing” guest on Mark’s show, it was my unpleasant job to take Scrooge’s side of the argument.
It’s hard to make Scrooge’s unsympathetic case in a 30 second soundbyte. I concede that it isn’t “fair” that Scrooge hoards his fortune while poor Tiny Tim is left to die. But here’s the problem. Who decides what is fair? Is it fair to have the government take Scrooge’s money and use it to create Medicaid, or, for that matter Obamacare? Before you answer keep in mind that if the government takes Scrooge’s money, it won’t be long before they’re taking your money also. And they won’t just give it to Tiny Tim; they’ll give it to all kinds of unsavory people for all kinds of unsavory reasons.
If you compare the fairness of laissez faire capitalism, where the Scrooges, Rockefellers, and Gates’s accumulate vast fortunes, while the Tiny Tims die from lack of care, with some Platonically ideal and idyllic world where everyone cares for his brother, and all men are really equal, capitalism comes up morally short. But in the real world those aren’t the real choices. In a free market system wealth is allocated according to a combination of the vicissitudes of market place skills and good luck. You may well feel that such an economic system is unfair, but what do you replace it with? In the real world the only alternative to free markets is a political economic system where government bureaucracy re-distributes wealth in accord with the dictates of self-interested politicians. Do you think the results are any fairer?
In the real world government is the worst possible institution to place in charge of administering charity to Tiny Tim and other misfortunates. I’d rather work on old Scrooge and persuade him to part with some of his money voluntarily, which, by the way, is exactly how the “Christmas Carol” story turns out. And in the real world, the fabulously wealthy from Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, and Rockefeller to Bill Gates and Warren Bufftett have been generous philanthropists. So my question for redistributionists and wealth levelers is this: Do you think the government does a better job of administering charity than philanthropists, private churches, and charities?
The welfare state began in America in the 1930’s and has been steadily expanding ever since. We have 80 years of data, and the results are in. Massive government hand-outs of benefits and cash has been an unmitigated disaster. What governmentalist ideologues and welfare state advocates fail to take into account is that the politicians who take upon themselves the unbounded field of power to decide who gets what and who has to pay what, have motives that aren’t entirely altruistic. Doesn’t this minor detail occur to those who advocate the massive government hand-outs of the welfare state? Do you think the men to whom you grant this awesome power are angels with pure motives? Is it not more likely that they will use this expansive power over the allocation of money to reward their friends, punish their enemies, hand out cash to those who give some of it back to them, and buy the votes of the masses with benefits and promises of benefits? If power corrupts why are we surprised that a government that has accumulated so much power has also become so corrupt? After decades of observing the failures of the welfare state, how can anyone still believe that such a corrosive system can produce positive social benefits?
To illustrate the problem consider an example. Imagine you’re part of a group of 100 people who move to a desert island. Your group decides to democratically elect a government of three people to be in charge of everything, including the power to decide taxes and who will pay them, and to whom wealth will be allocated. How do you think those three officials will fare? Everyone will treat them with great deference, and ply them with gifts and favors. Their decisions about who pays what and who gets what will be largely determined by what is in the self-interest of the three politicians who have been granted all this power. The public good will be subordinated to naked self interest. And the level of corruption will grow steadily worse over time. The model I am describing is exactly what’s gone wrong with the political system in the United States today.
Wealth inequality is a bogus issue, a red herring that takes the public policy discourse out of focus. If you think inequality is a problem let me ask a question that brings the issue into focus. Suppose we adopted a pro-growth pro-business public policy that over a period of time, say ten years, grew the economic pie including a doubling of the income of people in the bottom 10 percent. At the same time, however, the income of people in the top 10 percent quadrupled. In other words, the policy makes everyone wealthier, but overall inequality increases because the poorest 10 percent have only doubled their income, while the richest 10 percent have quadrupled theirs. Would you support such a policy?
If you answer yes, you are recognizing that wealth inequality in and of itself is not really the problem. You would like to see the poor become better off, even if the rich become better off at a faster rate. If you answer no, it means you are truly obsessed with inequality and would favor a society where everyone is equally poor because you believe that inequality is a worse problem than poverty. If that’s what you believe, you are a communist. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
If you’re now persuaded that wealth inequality is not a problem that government should try to correct, but you are still concerned about poverty, I have a solution. It’s called free enterprise. Over the past two hundred years the free enterprise system has liberated billions of people around the world from the grinding poverty bare subsistence struggle for survival that characterized the lives of most people since men first emerged from the trees. Free enterprise doesn’t create equality; far from it. But it does create vast amounts of wealth. And that wealth is distributed unevenly. But even those in the bottom tier, and even more so the vast majority of people in the middle class in capitalist societies, have a material standard of living today higher than the kings and emperors of the ancient world. The vast amount of wealth and material comfort, from indoor plumbing to electric appliances that we all take for granted today, were created by free market capitalism. Let’s not kill the capitalist goose that laid the golden egg in the futile pursuit of an unattainable goal like equality.