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.
October 17, 2009 - 12:00 am
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.
Consider the possibility of never having progressed to this level. For instance, if today’s labor laws were to be enforced prior to the Industrial Revolution, machines would not be allowed to replace the workers, and so most of them would be until this day engaged in mind-numbing manual labor. We would still be living in a pre-industrial society, with a handful of aristocrats and the vast majority of poor people toiling with hammers and sickles, living in filth, losing half of their children at birth, and dying at 40 because there would be no medical equipment and mass-produced drugs.
The Soviet Union’s backwardness was caused not by the lack of ingenuity of its people, but by the counterproductive economy of state-regulated socialism. Without capitalist achievements to learn from and copy, the USSR would have remained perpetually stuck in the 1930s. And so would the United States, if the American “progressives” who opposed Sumner were to get the upper hand a century ago and halt the development of capitalist entrepreneurship. In that case, the few remaining rich people in America would be living blissfully unaware of the unfulfilled possibilities of the 21st century, where even the poor could have had a better quality of life.
Likewise, today’s rich people, with all their combined wealth, can’t buy the material goods and the quality of life that will likely be available to the poor of the next century. Technological progress is known to have that democratizing effect. And the poor — whatever this word will mean a century from now — are likely to continue to enjoy free rides on the gravy train of capitalist innovation and mass production, unless the current trend towards class envy and forced economic equality stops this train in its tracks. That would bring everyone down, but the poor — to borrow a “progressive” media cliché — will be hit the hardest.
Thus, class envy is an unmistakably irrational perception. And since the demands for economic equality and redistribution of wealth are the derivatives of this perception, they are just as irrational, unsupported by reality, harmful, and immoral as class envy itself.
The very notion of economic equality implies that our lives are determined solely by material factors and that nothing spiritual matters. Granted, human dignity requires a certain minimum of material comfort. But once we are above that threshold and still continue to measure our dignity and our entire existence by the level of material comfort, we are, by implication, degrading free will, intellect, liberty, opportunity, and the greatness of the human spirit. This is an ugly distortion of human nature, to put it mildly. It is this philosophical view that allows the “progressives” to excuse skyrocketing crime by pointing to the “poverty” of its perpetrators, despite the obvious fact that no hardship during previous generations ever produced such an obscene crime rate.
After visiting a government housing project in the Bronx, P.J. O’Rourke commented that he himself had grown up in a poor home with a single working mother, among children who wore patched, faded, but neat clothes inherited from older siblings or neighbors. Most of them turned out well and succeeded in life. That was poverty, he writes. But this — $200 sneakers, gold chains, used condoms and needles in a dirty, urine-soaked stairwell with broken windows — this is not poverty; this is “something else.”
This “something else” is precisely the consequence of the view of human beings as spiritless creatures, devoid of mind and free will, and dependent on the government for sustenance. It also happens to be a view that permeates today’s media coverage of domestic and international events, as well as films, books, and TV shows produced by cultural elites obsessed with economic equality.
Few of them will argue that the spiritual rewards one derives from life are often more important than the material ones, and that a poor artist may enjoy a richer spiritual life than a government clerk or a CEO. But doesn’t that make them spiritually unequal? Shouldn’t cultural elites make award-winning movies and documentaries exposing an appalling spiritual unfairness? Shouldn’t they call for massive street protests against the poor artist — the metaphysical hog who selfishly hoards spiritual values and leaves others to live in moral depravity? Shouldn’t the clerks and the CEOs use media channels to vent their spiritual envy, decry the spiritual gap, and give scripted media interviews about the indignity of living in a system that allows the rich in spirit to get richer as the poor in spirit get poorer? Where are the self-righteous campaigners for spiritual equality?
Let us defer these questions to the experts on “egalitarian justice,” whose one-sided fixation on economic equality can be explained by the fortunate circumstance that spiritual equality is beyond their control, or they would be redistributing that as well. Not that they haven’t tried to redefine spirituality, supplant it with a surrogate version, and preach the redemption of guilt for having a bourgeois lifestyle. The redistribution of surrogate spiritual units in the form of carbon offsets payable to the Church of Climatology is one of the recent additions, along with the new definition of original sin as “having been born as a carbon-based life form.”
The only kind of equality that can be realistically achieved among humans is equality before the law, meaning equal rights and opportunities for all. Despite some historical setbacks, such equality has already been achieved in the Western world, and its beneficial results are obvious. Equality before the law is incompatible with forced economic equality, which rigs the game by infringing on the rights of the more productive in favor of the less productive, limiting opportunities for some to benefit others, and taking by force from one select group only to give unearned material gains to another select group.
To summarize, state-enforced redistribution of wealth in the name of economic equality will always split society into two unequal classes: the corrupt autocratic elite and the powerless majority, impoverished by economic stagnation. Its utopian goals notwithstanding, the main characteristic of such a society is forced inequality. In order to function, the state must stifle dissent and subordinate previously independent institutions that helped to erect the collectivist edifice, such as the media, trade unions, trial lawyers, and other special interest groups. All special interests are superseded by the interests of the state, represented by an authoritarian leader.
The only real choice before us, therefore, is not between economic inequality and economic equality, but between two types of economic inequality.
One is the transparent, volunteer economic inequality of laissez-faire capitalism, where people are free to choose opportunities that they like — but that also lead to predictably different compensation. Whether it’s the intense life of a CEO taking risky decisions, or the safe but uneventful existence of a government clerk, or the relaxed bohemian lifestyle of an artist — these are free choices based on what best suits people’s character and makes them happy, taken with full knowledge of the potential risks and rewards. The CEO, the clerk, and the artist receive different compensation for their work, yet they are all equal before the law, which protects their contracts with society and with each other.
These are not rigid classes; people can change their lives if they want to, and their children do not have to follow in their footsteps if a certain lifestyle or profession does not match their idea of happiness. Their material rewards are just because they are determined by the free market, and the differences motivate everyone to be more creative and productive. This system has brought prosperity, opportunity, and happiness to most people, making them equal beneficiaries of liberty and human dignity, as long as they don’t succumb to crime, drugs, or class envy.
The other type of economic inequality is the state-enforced redistribution of wealth, which is never transparent. The only successful career in such a system can be made inside the state hierarchy, which sooner or later becomes a snake pit ruled by cronyism, nepotism, kickbacks, and backstabbing. Given the existence of two distinct and unequal classes, the citizens face only two basic choices: to be a silent slave of the corrupt establishment, or to join the establishment and climb up the career ladder towards the unearned rewards and further away from the faceless, “less equal” masses below. Equality before the law ceases to exist, along with individual choices, aspirations, dignity, opportunity, and liberty — all sacrificed to the utopian illusion of “fairness.” As a result, neither the masses nor their rulers are happy with their lives.
Some years ago I escaped from the shipwreck of the Soviet “workers’ paradise” and moved to the United States, making a conscious choice between the forced inequality of socialism and the volunteer material inequality of capitalism. I didn’t expect to be rich; I only wanted an opportunity to earn an honest income without sacrificing my dignity. I wanted the freedom to pursue my own choices and aspirations, not the ones prescribed by the state. I wanted to live in a country where my success or failure would depend on my own honest effort, not on the whim of a bureaucrat. I wanted my relations with people to be based on voluntary agreements, not mandatory requirements. And finally, I wanted my earnings to be protected by law from wanton expropriation.
America deserves credit for living up to the ideas of liberty and fighting off the redistributionist utopia for as long as it has. As crippling as the hosting of two opposing economic systems can be, it still remains a free country. But the balance is rapidly changing. Like many immigrants seeking freedom and opportunity in America, I find this change not simply misguided but personally painful. And so do all freedom-loving people elsewhere in the unfree world, for whom the mere existence of this country still gives hope and validates their belief in liberty and individual rights.