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Friday, October 31, A.D. 2008
Redistributionism

For Halloween, I am going to write about something rather more terrifying than goblins and ghouls, unless by those words you mean members of the House Democratic Caucus. On this All Hallow’s Eve, or Samhain, for the heathen out there, I am going to address Obama’s spreading the wealth around conviction and also offer a policy proposal.

I have been annoyed for the past couple of weeks in reading defenses of “progressive” tax policy, where writer after writer dismissed the charge of socialism against Obama and stated that unequal tax brackets have always been American policy. Actually, it was less than a century ago, in the Progressive era—back in the days of nascent American socialism—that an amendment to the Constitution was passed to allow Congress to levy such taxes. So-called progressive taxation, as established and maintained by Obama’s Democratic pals, is socialist and has been since its beginning.

The Left is socialist because Leftists tend to be the kind of people who think that large centralized power wielded by well-intentioned experts will maximize good, in the utilitarian sense, in a polity. The truest mark of a Leftist is his absolute assurance that he—and his fellow friends of the trade—know what is better for you than you do. I think that this conviction is foolish in a number of ways.

First, even if we could have well-intentioned, impartial all-powerful directors, these benevolent despots could not be effective benefactors due to their necessary ignorance. No amount of wonkery and think tank number crunching could render a centralized decision center a better substitute for the knowledge and sensitivity of the society as a whole. In other words, a centralized planner can never know the minutiae involved in human affairs as well as the humans engaged intimately with such affairs. A centralized planner will not notice efficiently how conditions and situations change, and this planner will not have the requisite powers to respond effectively to meet those ever changing conditions.

Moreover, in social policy as in economics, the “controlling caste” in the West is quite given to academic fads. Much perverse damage has been done unto long-suffering mankind over the last century due to this sort of experimentation. The masters of nature in Lewis’ Abolition of Man dream up ever changing theories of human nature and human communities, and they impose various constraints and situations upon people based on these views. Tribal maxims and ancient traditions did the same, but they evolved over countless generations and were embraced voluntarily. Furthermore, the old ways were more insightful and wiser precepts for human society. The progressive arrogance is maddening—one hears social engineers express their infinite superiority over their primitive parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents because they have enlightened views on X, Y, and Z. Said social engineers try out their pet enlightened views, create a lot of chaos, and switch their theories every decade as research proves them wrong yet again.

It would be better to leave such matters to society to work out organically, without using the power and the treasure of a people collectively (through the state) as a means to transform one’s benefactors into laboratory rats—to poke and to prod and to torment as one wills, all on the public dime. Certainly, conventional opinion is full of falsehoods. Custom incurred the slurs of the philosophers for good reason—it harbors many learnt untruths, unfounded prejudices, and irrationality. Yet, custom is likely a better guide than ever-changing and even more baseless academic idealogies. For custom is based on centuries if not millennia of human experience, whereas some doctor’s theory is just his theory. Hence, you see the wisdom of American conservative populism: William F. Buckley, Jr. famously—and wisely—stated that he would “sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.” No egalitarian himself, Buckley expressed the elite conservative’s view that the masses, however foolish, stupid, and ignorant they are, are less dangerous to mankind than intelligent people with harmful ideas and the intent to impose such ideas. So, a centralized power is unable to have the requisite information to make good decisions, and, in our world today, it is likely to be manned by folks with untested ideological slop for their understanding of human nature.

Second, we do not have all-powerful directors. If we still grant their benevolence, they do not control the arms of their bureaucracies like the human brain moves the sinews and limbs of the body. Not only is large, distant, centralized power ignorant, it is largely unable to respond effectively to problems. As power is slowly lost on a grid, managerial ability in a massive bureaucracy proves a poor conductor of action.

Third, we cannot even grant benevolence, and history is an eager teacher of such a lesson. The Left often complains that corporations and “big business” exploit workers, do not return to their communities what they “take” from them, and are only out for profit as opposed to the common good. They assume, quite falsely, that power in the hands of governmental bureaucrats is only exercised justly. However, there are just as many competing, selfish special interests in bureaucracies as in corporations, but such interests are not honest about their self-promotion. The more that a government does—the wider its scope of power—the more inviting corruption becomes, as the pay-off increases. Politicians in America love to tout government programs as what the government is doing for its citizens, when really such programs exist to grease the palms of the machines that bring those politicians to power and keep them there. Consider the lobbying of A.A.R.P., the N.E.A., trial lawyers, the pharmaceutical industry, and the insurance industry, for example, and then judge how laws, government programs, and public grant money are determined by and for the public good. Even if you think that oil companies take advantage of Americans and scam them of their money, they cannot hold a candle to the utter involuntary fleecing—through taxation—that takes place in the name of the common good.

Fourth, bureaucratic power diminishes freedom in a way that private institutions and individuals do not. For bureaucrats take upon themselves the full power of the whole society to compel and to restrict. If a corporation functions on greed, you may be able to keep your freedom by not working for it or purchasing its services or goods. This personal freedom expands as prosperity increases; mixed-voluntary servitude happens when you choose to work like a dog for less than you think right because you have no other option to secure your needs, but less people are in this state the wealthier a society is. Historically speaking, private greed-based capitalism has been the chief force in bringing such wealth to societies, whereas societies milked by oppressive bureaucracies end up with more more mixed-voluntary slaves. Moreover, without political corruption involved, private institutions and individuals have no real power over you if you choose to ignore them, whereas the state has the societally-endowed threat of violence to hold over you. A Leftist might rebuke me and point to the private sphere’s social coercion or control of the means of production, and he would have a point in some circumstances, especially in industrially developing lands where one has little room to exercise choice. Nonetheless, the potential power of the state over individual life has no competition. The Leviathan of the commonwealth was entrusted with fearsome powers, and one should consider very carefully the dangers of inviting that monster into new corners of its citizens’ personal lives.

So, the Left is wrong to think that centralized control by experts, under the banner of the common good, achieves either competent, expert action or policies and programs geared toward the common good. Yet, there are other reasons that make socialism attractive to the Left, regardless of its inability to function efficiently and its tendency toward oppressive totalitarianism.

One such reason is the failure to distinguish public from private morality. Indeed, a certain strand of intellectual Leftism rejects the distinction between public and private altogether. For these Marxists, the state is the only true level of human community. In Aristotle’s Politics, the philosopher distinguishes several types of political communities, from marriage to the family to the city. Each type of community has its own function, rules, character, claims, and so on. Were we to mix them up—or to flatten them into one level—we would guarantee misery and disaster. Indeed, many Leftists do not admit such folly but nonetheless still confuse public and private morality. Many of these Leftists are well-intentioned Christians who wish to translate Christ’s commandments to take care of the poor into government policy. I think that such folks misunderstand the purpose of charity—in that it allows the giver to imitate God in sacrificial giving and in that it facilitates a relationship of love between the giver and the receiver. This charity happens between people, not between a state and its citizens. The further removed and the less voluntary it is, the less such can rightly be called charity. The welfare state is not what Christ commands, regardless of the “social justice” nonsense of socialist Roman Catholics. Andrew once remarked that Voltaire’s quip about the Holy Roman Empires makes a nice comment on Catholic Social Justice; it’s neither Catholic, nor social, nor just.

Yet another concern that socialists have is wealth disparity. Envy may lurk behind this concern, and you hear as much when the Left frets how the rich and the poor are farther apart now than ever in America. One wonders how honest such folks are with themselves. If you look at the wealth distribution in the United States over the last sixty years, you see that all income classes have increased their purchasing power—their real world wealth to live and to acquire and to consume material goods. Anyone who has been around a couple of decades should be able to see this from personal experience. Even given the economic disaster that has just befallen us, American society is richer than it was twenty years ago, and much richer than it was thirty years ago. Being poor in America today is not what it used to be. The economic prosperity that has come to the United States during globalization has benefited the wealthy investor classes more, and so you can see a phenomenal rise in billionaires over the last two decades. It must to this fact that the class warfare instigators point when they cry about the rich getting richer and the poor getting richer . . . oh, wait—that would be true! They do not mention such, and yet it has been the case. Every class has increased its wealth with economic globalization, but the increase has increased more significantly for the wealthier, as you would expect.

Hence, the Left is not concerned about the poor’s quality of life, as such, so much as it is obsessed with egalitarianism. For Leftists, it is a matter of justice that everyone should be equal. According to the Left, it is the state’s job to enforce this equality by spreading the wealth around. Well, human beings are not equal—in any way. Andrew called this proposition a “damned Enlightenment lie,” and I cannot improve upon that description, except that it is an obvious and ridiculous lie, as well. Modern Leftists, following men better than they, believe in a tabula rasa human nature, where environment, or nurture, determines a man. As such, they blame all social ills on “unjust power structures” or “oppressive systems.” If only we could reinvent the wheel for the millionth time in a half-century, we would get it right and everything then would be perfect!

The nature versus nurture debate is still at it, and I think that an honest assessment takes both to have a large influence in human affairs. However, even if we could create a society where each child had the same home, education, and life experiences from the state, soon enough would radical inequality occur. Humans are unequally intelligent, unequally creative, unequally driven and ambitious, unequally risky, unequally disciplined, and so forth. Biological factors play a decisive if not determinative role in shaping who we are. Therefore, regardless of the social structure, radical human inequality would occur in economic and social standing. It is human nature, and socialism works against nature.

Plato’s Laws noticed this aspect of human nature millennia ago, but the Athenian Stranger of the dialogue who is laying out a proposed city’s laws is still concerned about income disparity. For he desires wealth distribution not out of justice but for social unity and stability. The Athenian Stranger takes it for granted that there will be social classes, but he does not want the wealthiest to be too rich or the poor to be too poor. So, he proposes something of a Jubilee law, where all ancestral property returns to a family after a certain period of time. Like the Hebrews, the Athenian Stranger is anxious about a dispossessed class of poor people or a super rich class of plutocrats whose power endangers the rest of the community. Individuals will rise or fall based on their personal traits, but the policy of the regime attempts to keep individual failures from becoming generational condemnations to penury.

I think that this is the only decent argument that I have encountered for wealth redistribution. It does not make claims of justice; for it is unjust to rob a man’s goods from him. Yet, a man’s right to justice is superseded by the good of the whole; the survival of the society takes precedence over the inviolability of his private property, Nonetheless, room is left for the wealthy to be wealthy and for the poor to be poor, within limits.

Yet, I do not think that such concerns could justify wealth redistribution in the American regime. First, American capitalism allows for social mobility in a manner unimagined by the Hebrews or the Greeks. A Jubilee system in antiquity could safeguard against a permanant underclass because almost all economic activity involved agriculture and land ownership. Such is no longer the case. A rich child in the United States has it easier, obviously, but it is not even unlikely that an intelligent and industrious man should rise through our class system, given the opportunities and mobility of American society. Second, the super rich do not pose a significant danger to the republic due to the size of the republic. Even men of unimaginable wealth—the Gates and the Buffets of the world—cannot exercise political control over the United States. Certainly, they can influence it a lot, like George Soros, but they are not real threats. Thirty billion dollars is not so much, given the total value of the society. Moreover, American plutocrats are usually tied to the markets, and were such rich to misuse their wealth drastically, they would lose a lot of it. Naturally, I cannot think of worse uses for wealth than those of George Soros, but enough Americans think otherwise. Were he openly funding ethnic genocide in Sudan, his economic power would lessen and his political power would disappear.

Leftists like to claim that the wealthy get more from society; as such, they should give more back. I do not think that it is simply snarly to mention that wealth would not be there at all were it not for the creativity, ingenuity, and managerial skills of productive citizens. Such claims seem to ask the glassblower, porcelain maker, and like artisans to pay homage to sand and dirt. Yet, I suppose that the regime should be given some credit for the political stability and for the human talent and labor necessary for economic activity. However, even with a flat tax, the wealthy would be giving back much more than others—and certainly much more than they get. Let us consider my fantasy scenario where each person has to pay 10% in federal income tax. Someone who made $10,000 a year would pay $1,000, while someone who made $10,000,000 would pay $1,000,000 in taxes. To whom much was given, much was received back. A “progressive,” i.e. unjust income taxation policy makes a mockery of this proverb.

Besides, the wealthier one is, the less he benefits from or incurs costs to the state. Public services always benefit the poor more than the rich, from public transportation to public recreation to public education to public libraries (for the poor who actually read)—the rich are more likely to pay for private services. Moreover, the rich are far less likely to cost the society; the wealthy commit crimes much less than the poor. The Left can rant all that it wants about the rich man’s son and his fancy lawyer; it does not alter the fact. So, in criminal damages and in the penal justice system, the rich cost less money to the state than the poor. They more than pay their fair share with a flat tax system.

I have not even given any social Darwinian reasons against the redistribution of wealth; I’ll make such untimely meditations in other posts. I do wish to support a form of wealth redistribution that ties together various points so far covered. Social unity is important, while a class structure, as The Laws points out, is inevitable. Hence, it is important to have some sort of social mobility for the cream to rise and for the worthless to fall—as a matter of justice and for Darwinian reasons. It is in the upper crust’s self-interest to send their idiot progeny down to the proletariat and likewise to welcome among them the workers’ children with gold in the veins, in the imagery of The Republic. I think that the most efficient, least intrusive way to insure such social unity and stability is through maintaining a fine local public infrastructure. I enthusiastically support local government-financed institutions like parks, museums, training programs, schools, colleges, recreational facilities, public health facilities, libraries, and the like. If we have a flat tax, most revenue will come from the wealthier citizens, and, as we have seen, the poorer citizens will most benefit from public services. This is redistribution. Yet, each of those institutions and programs are for the city as a whole; the wealthy are just as welcome, albeit unwilling, to utilize them. This should be a precondition for government action—it must be for the common good.

Moreover, I think that, in the United States, local political communities should be in charge of instituting, managing, and financing such public activities. The federal government should have no part in it—except for the aggregate of federal departments and agencies in charge of managing federal lands and natural resources, like the Forest Service and the National Park Service—and the cultural and educational institutions in Washington, D.C., such as the Smithsonian Institution and the Library of Congress. States should take on the responsibilities too large for localities, but it is better for the control and money to be as local as possible. Such local financing and control reduce the chance of social engineering; money from New England cannot be used to turn Appalachian folks in West Virginia into people with urban Californian values.

I think that any other system is bad public policy. However, I know that the socialists have a lock on power and that they will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. So, I have come up with an alternative compromise. We could still have a “progressive” tax policy, but a few modifications would undo its socialist aspects. First, we would have to agree upon a base rate of income tax that every wage or income earner would pay. It is unjust that 40% of American adults do not pay taxes. Everyone should have a part. Let us have, for instance, a base rate of 10%. From this 10%, we would still have State and local tax deductions, meaning that you would not be taxed more than 10%, even given State and local income and property taxes (or sales taxes in the States with no income tax). Then, on top of the 10% base rate for everyone, there is a graduated scale going up to the highest percentage level, which is no case should be above 50%. The tax over the base amount up to the full graduated percentage, we’ll call the “progressive” tax. It would be nothing for the poorest group of income earners and up to 39% for the wealthiest.

How, then, are we curbing socialism? Well, this progressive tax can be paid to the IRS in full, or you can get a tax credit for any charitable contribution to a non-profit organization. Note that I am not proposing a tax deduction, as is currently the law, but a 1:1 tax credit. For every dollar given to a charity, you would have to pay one less dollar of your progressive tax. This would resolve or temper several socialist problems.

First, the federal government would have to scale back its operations severely, as it cannot count on many people’s freewill decision to send the IRS money. Most people think—rightly—that they know better how to spend money for the common good than the government. So, the budget would have to be planned with 10% in mind, and all excess funding could help to pay off the principal on the national debt.

Likewise, the plan safeguards American freedom and minimizes bureaucratic corruption. Even though one would have to give his treasure away, he would be free to decide where it went, as long as it went to a non-profit organization. A legitimate concern would be the circumventing of the tax law’s spirit by giving money to self-serving non-profits, but the laws currently on the books for family trusts could be followed as a blueprint for what would count as a legitimate non-profit. Indeed, such regulations could be strengthened with certain non-partisan, ideologically free qualifications—such as the need for the non-profit to have a certain portion or higher of its income devoted to programs rather than administrative costs. Yet, whether such an organization handles poverty, education, religion, art, abused animals, or what not is no business of the government. We are trying to salvage human freedom here!

Lobbyists would not as readily seek to buy politicians, but special interests would compete in the marketplace of public opinion for dollars to come their way, as they should. The flow of money would match the world view of the public; no bureaucratic elite could socially engineer the citizens from on high, at the public’s expense.

Private philanthropy in the United States, already impressive, would explode, and such institutions—smaller in scale, closer to the problems that they are addressing, more dynamic, flexible, and open to change than political bureaucracies—would make the land much better than the welfare state has done. Even though taxation would be involved, the personal aspect of giving would make such taxation closer to charity. It would effect more of a change in the giver, and people would be more supportive of the common good, knowing exactly how they are engaged in making their communities better places. Burke’s “little platoons” that hold up society much better than the agencies of a managerial state would be well outfitted to strengthen society.

With this system, the charitable and common good goals of the Left would be better achieved, along with Leftists’ pathological need to soak the rich and to exact money from them. However, such social benefits would come without the dangers of soft totalitarianism. Indeed, this proposal is what I would like to call the welfare state of a free people—where they people decide for themselves how to look after their communities.

Posted by Joseph on Friday, October 31, Anno Domini 2008
Philosophy | PoliticsComments
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