When asked why he had chosen to rob banks, Willie Sutton reportedly answered, “because that’s where the money is.” In later years, he expounded.
I enjoyed it. I loved it. I was more alive when I was inside a bank, robbing it, than at any other time in my life. I enjoyed everything about it so much that one or two weeks later I’d be out looking for the next job. But to me the money was the chips, that’s all.
Go where the money is…and go there often.
Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under the Clinton Administration, seems to concur with Sutton’s sentiment. In a recent Huffington Post piece, he lays out the boilerplate argument for “why we must raise taxes on the rich.” That is to say, he appeals to class envy while ignoring economic reality and the essential moral consideration.
Here’s the truth: The only way America can reduce the long-term budget deficit, maintain vital services, protect Social Security and Medicare, invest more in education and infrastructure, and not raise taxes on the working middle class is by raising taxes on the super rich.
This is reminiscent of an ad run during the second week of a film’s theatrical release declaring it “the number one buddy cop comedy in America!” When you start to get that specific, your claim ceases to impress.
More to the point, Reich speaks in a moral vacuum. Perhaps Sutton would rephrase thus:
Here’s the truth: The only way I can keep ahead of the rent, put food on the table, ensure my retirement and personal well-being, put my kids through college and keep my cars running, and not have to endure the burden of actually earning it all is by robbing banks.
That’s a true statement. However, it’s not a defense which would hold up in court. Why? Because courts are preoccupied with something called justice, and justice does not regard need or want as legal claim.
The troublesome premise at the heart of Reich’s argument is that people are entitled to that which they have not earned. This is the same premise which underlies theft. That should bother Reich’s readers, if not Reich himself.
It presumes that “the working middle class” ought not pay for their vital services, retirement benefits, health care, education, and infrastructure. If we take that presumption for granted, why then should the “wealthy” pay for it?
It’s such a simple question, it seems almost silly to ask. However, when our public policy debate starts to circumvent obvious questions, we are obliged to raise them. What is the principle by which one man is entitled to the earnings of another? If such entitlement is indeed just, why did we punish Willie Sutton? Does theft cease to be theft if perpetrated by a majority?
Only Reich and those who think like him can answer these challenges. In the meantime, suffice it to say he has a problem with people keeping what they earn and paying for what they consume. Regardless of any moral consideration, such an inverse of economic priority is plainly unsustainable, as the current list of our fiscal ship attests.