Thursday, June 21, 2012

On the Redistribution of Wealth

In 2008, a man named Joe “The Plumber” Wurzelbacher asked then-candidate Barack Obama to expand on his economic policy. During the resulting exchange, Mr. Obama indicated that “when you spread the wealth around, it is good for everybody.” If he knew that he was being recorded at the time, he might have chosen his words more carefully.
In some circles, it is generally understood that Mr. Obama is a Maoist.
Mr. Obama’s statement gave substance to an idea that many conservatives find profoundly disturbing. Conservatives prefer to allocate their personal wealth on their own, with minimal outside interference. They also worry that the money they’ve earned through hard work will be taken from them and placed into the hands of malingerers and shirkers. These are legitimate concerns, even if many people on the political left do not believe so.
Joe the Plumber became a cause célèbre among conservatives, apparently, because he had unmasked Mr. Obama as a socialist. However, redistribution of wealth is not a practice that is confined to socialists, communists or even Welfare State Liberals. Any government which collects taxes and spends money redistributes wealth. If there were no government at all and a state of anarchy prevailed, the redistribution of wealth would still occur on a regular basis: gangs of thugs would roam the countryside, stealing from the less powerful. There are small groups residing in Montana and Idaho who believe that they could protect themselves from roving gangs during the post-Apocalypse, but I doubt that many of them have stockpiled enough ammunition or canned goods for the long haul.
The word “redistribution” has acquired frightful connotations as a result of the writings of people such as Ayn Rand, who once said, “Whoever claims the ‘right’ to ‘redistribute’ the wealth produced by others is claiming the ‘right’ to treat human beings as chattel.” And, “If a man proposes to redistribute wealth, he means explicitly and necessarily that the wealth is his to distribute.”
To better understand the connotations of the word “redistribution,” I consulted Conservapedia, and learned that Ludwig von Mises – a favorite among libertarians – helped to popularize the notion that Adolf Hitler was a socialist. If this were true, it would be an excellent reason to avoid socialism. However, even if the Nazi Party (aka, “National Socialist German Workers Party”) called itself “socialist,” the Nazis were a notoriously dishonest crowd. They were fascists, pure and simple. And fascism is a poisonous mixture of totalitarianism, militarism, and blind faith in the Nietzschean doctrine of the Übermenschen. The latter doctrine encourages fascists to view the human race as comprised of “producers” and “parasites.”
The point here is that, in the minds of many conservatives, the words “socialism,” “communism,” and “fascism” are synonyms, and they are all linked to the phrase “redistribution of wealth.” This is a mistaken view, but it is also an understandable view if it is seen in historical and social context. American conservatives, since the early days of the Republic, have lived alongside liberals who are – it must be admitted – a bit too glib in recommending that wealth be redistributed from the wealthy to the poor. There are liberals who still believe that the writings of Karl Marx offer practical guidance on equitable government. They fancy themselves proletarian when they are in fact bourgeois.
Eminent liberals such as Paul Krugman have said that it would be a good idea to “soak the rich.” And “soak” is slang for “overcharge” or “extort money from.” One can hardly blame the rich if they object to the idea of getting soaked. And no matter what he says in public, Warren Buffett wouldn’t stand for getting soaked either.  
The question of whether or not we should soak the rich has become ideological. As such, some people believe that soaking the rich is always a good idea and other people believe that it is never a good idea. People rarely if ever have calm discussions on the subject. They don’t make distinctions between personal income and corporate earnings. If one turns on the television, one doesn’t hear people saying, “If a corporation hires American workers, it should get a tax break. But if the corporation is firing people, increasing the number of unemployed Americans and putting money into the pockets of the Chinese and the Arabs, we ought to soak them.” And you don’t hear people saying, “If people invest in a hedge fund that earns money every time a home is foreclosed on, they should be soaked.”
Right now, the Chinese are sending their navy over to join its friends the Syrians, Iranians, and Russians for some military exercises. That’s a diplomatic way of saying that, if America were to do anything about those tyrants Assad and Ahmadinejad they are going to shoot at us. Some friends they turned out to be. Since a number of American corporations have been responsible for the rise of China as an economic and military power, maybe it’s only fair that they pay a little more in taxes.

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