The knives have come out. George Will has exposed the dark secrets we knew had to be lurking in Bernie Sanders’ closet. Here’s his attack piece in National Review. As an hoers d’ouevre, Will accuses Bernie of caucusing with Democrats (gasp!). And as if that wasn’t bad enough, he’s apparently not even a good enough socialist for Comrade Will. Socialism, says Will, used to mean “government ownership of the means of production.” Over time, according to Will, this idea was diluted to mean simply taxing rich people more than poor people and providing programs that benefit poor people more than rich people. So, it turns out Bernie Sanders is not a Socialist in the comic conservative propaganda sense. He’s just a reasonable guy who has less faith than many people on the Right in the magical incantations whereby letting rich people keep all their money makes poor people richer.
This mealy-mouthed Socialism lite doesn’t work for Michele Malkin either, who can’t tell the difference between Hugo Chavez and Comrade Bernie. For Michele, policies like free college education can’t have any other motivation than “punishing” and “shaming” the “wealth-creators,” peace be upon them. Bernie’s moderate Euro-socialism is clearly not comfortable for conservatives. If word gets out that socialism just means taxing rich people to provide basic necessities to poor people, the fanged Jabberwock that drives conservatives to the polls will turn out to be sorta sensible, if slightly idealistic, policy. And so, Malkin reminds us in National Review that there’s but a razor thin distinction, hardly even worth mentioning, between breaking up the big banks and impaling hedge-fund managers on stakes.
Confronted by new and perplexing ideas, the impulse of the Stupid (and, if fact, all of us) is to retreat to the safety of simplistic categories and pithy platitudes. Ambiguity is not for the faint of heart. But therein lies safety and prosperity.
I’m With Stupid
HeyStupid is a socialist in the vein of Bernie Sanders and this might be a good opportunity to lay out my case for redistribution. Because I’m not running for any office, I can say what Democratic politicians (except Bernie Sanders) can’t: The current distribution of wealth is, to a large degree, not based on merit and therefore preserving it is not inherently moral. Let me rephrase. I reject the conservative notion that income is strongly correlated with superior character or work ethic.
That doesn’t seem to bother some conservatives. I’ve asked a few of my friends to evaluate the following scenario. Imagine that your paycheck, and in fact, everyone’s paycheck, was based, either partially or entirely, on a dice roll. You could change jobs if you want, but the result of this dice roll would follow you. In that scenario, I ask my conservative friends, would explicit wealth redistribution still be immoral. Imagine that fifty percent of your salary were determined this way. In that case, would you support taxing the very richest people at 50%? Most of them agree with me on this point. Then the question becomes, how much of peoples’ income can we reasonable attribute to their talent and work ethic? Even Greg Mankiw, reliable defender of the 1%, couldn’t see his way clear to assigning more than 22% of income variation to genetics. The rest was upbringing, family connections and plain, dumb luck. I don’t disagree with them that taking money from people that earned it by their efforts is bad. I just have a lower estimate of the fraction of wealth that is actually distributed according to merit.
I’d like to clarify that I don’t hate the rich. I don’t fault them for winning the socioeconomic lottery or for playing the game the very best they can. But I don’t like the game and I think it should be changed.
Now, some of my friends have no moral objection to redistribution. They have more practical concerns with redistribution. Mostly, they complain that high tax rates demotivate the wealthy. Why, after all, would they get out of bed and go to work at their very hard jobs if they didn’t make a whole lot of money? But this is trivial. The wealthy don’t go to work to make money. They go to work to make more money than someone else. Sure, you might initially have a few people that decide to hang it up and sail around the world rather than work for a paltry $2.4 million/year after taxes. But before long, no one would notice they had less than before because they’d be too busy worrying about having less than someone else. And off they’d go again.
In redistributing wealth, we are bound to, in some cases, take money from deserving, hard-working people, and give it to undeserving, lazy people. It’s time we came to grips with this. However, since our starting point is monumentally unfair, I feel quite confident our new distribution could scarcely be worse than the one that exists now.