It is almost a decade since the Marxist empire began crumbling, yet the crackpot ideas of its founder live on. The idea that wealth is a form of “social injustice,” and that redistributing income is a worthy and progressive goal remains persuasive to people in government and out. That’s why America, for example, still has a capital gains tax, which specifically targets money earned from the creation of wealth.
Such ideas are also still very much a part of the language we speak. We refer casually to the “haves” and “have nots,” as if in the beginning someone handed out life’s goodies to a few and withheld them from the many. By equating “injustice” with unequal wealth, we imply further that one man’s bounty can only be the result of another’s deprivation.
Why instead do we not speak of the “cans” and the “cannots,” the “wills” and the “will nots,” and the “dos” and the “do nots”? Everyone can look around and see examples of each. It is will, intelligence, ability, energy and desire that determine individual destinies.
And what we know in our own companies and families and neighborhoods is true of the nation at large. A recent study shows that most of the families who constitute the richest 1 percent of U.S. households (over $2 million in net worth) earned their wealth, and that most of it is in entrepreneurial assets, unincorporated businesses or investment real estate. And the list of the richest families changes from year to year, proving that wealth is not a divine right.
There are, of course, undeserving rich, just as there are deserving poor. But most people with money are busily producing more jobs and conveniences for others, and taking great risks to do it. That’s why the market rewards them as it does.
And that is why redistributing their wealth — i.e. socialism — is quite simply theft. It uses the force of the state to reach into the pockets of those who have earned their money and give it to someone who has not. Not only is this not justice, it is destructive to the less fortunate. Suppose the government were to confiscate what Bill Gates has — all $20 billion of it, by a recent count — and distribute it to the homeless or the inner-city poor. We know what would happen to it, because the government does that every other week with welfare payments, taken from those who work and given to those who don’t. It disappears. Sometimes it is used to buy alcohol and drugs that destroy the purchaser over time. Other times it may be used for food and other subsistence necessities. In either case, the money disappears — or, more precisely, it leads to nothing else — at least not for the individuals who are given it.
If Gates keeps his capital, on the other hand, there is a likelihood he will invest it in ways that create jobs, even whole industries, that never existed before. To prevent Gates from doing that by “redistributing” his income diminishes capital needed for a growing economy and expands waste.
Redistribution has grave social and psychological costs as well. It sows resentment and distrust. When liberal enthusiasts inveigh against the 1 percent of the nation who own 50 percent of the wealth, they are inciting passions against the most productive members of the community. That can have catastrophic consequences, as the misery spread over half the globe by the communist revolutions amply demonstrated. In the West, the effects are more subtly corrosive, making it more difficult for entrepreneurs to accomplish their wealth-creating agendas, thus slowing the improvement of conditions for us all.
The idea of “social justice,” as Friedrich Hayek observed long ago, is a mirage, a social fiction of the left. There is no “Society” that distributes income unfairly, and no “Society” that could make the distribution just. Rather, the ability of Gates and other free market entrepreneurs to accumulate billions has transformed the world and not accidentally made life better for millions of people.
What justice would be accomplished by confiscating Gates’ billions and having them “redistributed” down unproductive channels — to disappear completely, probably in a matter of weeks? Better those billions be invested in the creation of new enterprises and the expansion of old ones. That is surely the most “just” way to share the wealth.