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Joyriding the Gravy Train of Economic Inequality

I escaped from the shipwreck of the Soviet "workers' paradise," the forced inequality of socialism, and chose the volunteer material inequality of capitalism.

by
Oleg Atbashian

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October 17, 2009 - 12:00 am
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Let us imagine a utopian country named Sovdepia, whose people love the children so much that they voluntarily agreed to redistribute all their material wealth equally to level the playing field for future generations. Let’s further imagine that a few years later we visit Sovdepia on a taxpayer-funded fact-finding mission. Upon arrival, we are surprised to see how little material equality is left, especially among the children. We find local social scientists and ask them what happened. They sadly point at the differences in the Sovdepians’ habits, virtues and vices, ambitions, health, and plain dumb luck. But the most powerful reason for inequality, they tell us with dismay, turns out to be the highest Sovdepian virtue — the unconditional love of the parents for their children and the desire to do the best for them.

The truth is, even the most hard-nosed Soviet ideologues still cheated the system when it came to their offspring. Having risked life and limb fighting for universal equality, they all ended up inventing creative workarounds to make their own children “more equal” than others. Who can blame them? They were human, even if they denied humanity to everyone else. And who can blame Barack Obama for sending his two daughters to an expensive private school? He only wants the best for his children, even if he is promoting the inferior public school system for everyone else’s.

No parent, including the politicians who are forcing economic equality on Americans, will deny their own children added privileges that come with government positions. Anything less would be heartless and uncaring, even if it would contradict their life-long battle against the “heartless and uncaring” opponents of economic equality, which they themselves will be now violating. Given that parents will always be in different positions to endow their offspring, the next generation following any hypothetical Great Redistribution of Wealth will grow up economically unequal. Only this time, in the absence of freedom and opportunities, their wealth and privileges will be largely unearned. And that will finally give the “yearning after equality” the moral validity it badly lacked before.

But until such time, while equal freedom and opportunity still exists, the only justification for the forced redistribution of wealth is class envy — an emotion based on a subjective perception of other people’s wealth regardless of how it was earned. And the relative and subjective nature of wealth makes the case for its redistribution even flimsier.

Consider the fact that the Soviet apparatchiks, smugly driving their Volgas past the average Soviet pedestrians, themselves looked pathetic next to American middle-class families, with Chevrolets in the front and swimming pools in the back of their suburban houses.

The apparatchiks liked to be called “people’s servants.” Unlike their less equal “masters,” they were allowed to travel to the West. The striking material contrast must have caused many of them to entertain a criminal thought that, were they to discard their own system of government redistribution and give people the opportunity to earn real income without government obstruction, everyone’s living standard would quadruple — including their own. But since in a free and competitive society they wouldn’t be the ones with the most power and privilege, the certainty of smaller unearned rewards outweighed for them the opportunity to earn greater rewards with honest efforts. So they continued to “serve” the people by keeping them down and staying on top.

Observing the class-envy mentality on both continents, I noticed a recurring pattern: other people’s wealth always appears larger and irritates more forcefully at a closer distance. Since envy is based on emotion rather than reason, one’s personal perception of a wealthier neighbor is more unsettling than some distant, greater wealth measured on an abstract absolute scale, which can only be perceived by reason.

The reverse side of the class-envy mentality is the notion that being better off than your neighbor is more satisfying than being wealthy by absolute standards while knowing that your neighbor still has more. The folk wisdom of my home country put this in a story: a king promised a peasant that he would grant him any wish on condition that his neighbor would get twice as much. The peasant laughed and asked the king to poke him in one eye. In another tale a man who could wish for anything wished that his neighbor’s cow were dead. And so on.

An historical comparison makes the relative nature of wealth even more obvious. While today’s poor people may seem poor compared to their middle-class neighbors, on an absolute scale they are better off than the rich people in the days of William Graham Sumner. Not only do they have better medicine, longer life expectancy, running hot and cold water, electricity, gas stoves, and indoor plumbing, they have what even the richest and the most powerful people on earth couldn’t dream of: camera cell phones, digital players, air conditioners, refrigerators, microwaves, TVs with hundreds of channels for entertainment, video games, DVD players, fast and comfortable cars with music and AC, air travel, and computers that can instantly connect them with anyone in the world.

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