Jeff Jacoby adds to the class warfare debate in ‘The defining issue of our time’? Hardly, in The Boston Globe, 5/6/12.
But what Americans honor is equality in the eyes of the law, political equality — not equality of income or material circumstances. The two kinds of equality are inherently in conflict, as every effort to impose egalitarianism eventually proves. “There is all the difference in the world between treating people equally and attempting to make them equal,” wrote Friedrich Hayek in 1948. The fact that some people make much more money than others has never convinced the American people that a fundamental overhaul of society is necessary or even desirable. For all the extravagant claims made last year about Occupy Wall Street’s significance, is anyone surprised that the movement has fizzled?
But most voters understand intuitively that in a free society, unequal productivity will generate unequal wealth. Incentives and rewards are powerful motivators of work and risk-taking; and the greater the potential rewards, the more an economy will achieve. A Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or Sam Walton is far more likely to flourish in a nation where people can become millionaires and billionaires — and to enrich all of us in the process of enriching themselves.
“In a democratic, capitalist society, gaps in income are inevitable,” write Peter Wehner and Robert Beschel Jr. in the current issue of National Affairs. “Yet it is worth noting that democratic capitalism has done far more to create wealth, advance human flourishing, and lift people out of destitution than any other economic and political system. . . A policy agenda that has as its top priority the elimination of income gaps. . . not only encourages resentment but also threatens the American economy — because a narrow focus on closing gaps tends to go along with reduced overall growth.”
There is no fixed limit to the wealth a society can produce, and today’s “1 percent” produce an amazing amount of it. But their wealth takes nothing away from the other 99 percent. We are all free to rise as high as talent, education, and hard work will take us. Wealth is not theft. Productivity is not zero-sum. If economic disparity is a problem, then the way to solve it is by raising those who are stuck near the bottom, not tearing down those who have climbed to the top.
Jacoby notes that the class warfare ruse is nothing new and it is rarely successful politically. Advances in economic thinking have dispelled myths about wealth that this administration still believes. Government programs that intend and pretend to share the wealth instead mire generations in poverty by turning the safety net into a hammock. (Great metaphor from Paul Ryan.) In our humanity that came cheaply during a strong economy we extended benefits from the unable to the unwilling.
This administration seeks the path pursued by Europe as Europe is collapsing. It is not a coincidence that Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook and so many progress accelerating companies are American. Even if entrepreneurs such as Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg may not have been totally motivated by the pursuit of wealth the capital that was tapped to grow those companies clearly were. The Wall Street so demonized, not without some cause, serves a critical social purpose to allocate capital to such enterprises.
Policies that impede this flow of capital, which are proliferating in the name of fairness, do not aid the poor as much as it institutionalizes them.