Will Piketty’s Book Change the World?
The relative fluidity of the American classes has been remarked on many times, most recently in a study by professors Mark R. Rank and Thomas A. Hirschl:
It turns out that 12 percent of the [US] population will find themselves in the top 1 percent of the income distribution for at least one year. What’s more, 39 percent of Americans will spend a year in the top 5 percent of the income distribution, 56 percent will find themselves in the top 10 percent, and a whopping 73 percent will spend a year in the top 20 percent of the income distribution....
It is clear that the image of a static 1 and 99 percent is largely incorrect. The majority of Americans will experience at least one year of affluence at some point during their working careers. (This is just as true at the bottom of the income distribution scale, where 54 percent of Americans will experience poverty or near poverty at least once between the ages of 25 and 60).
It makes sense that this would be a large part of why this country has been somewhat resistant to socialism so far, and part of the reason that Americans have also traditionally had less tolerance for high taxes on the rich than Europeans have (the high taxes of mid-twentieth century America were offset by generous tax shelters and deductions that effectively neutered them). Many Americans have a not-completely-unrealistic hope that they might some day join the rich's ranks.
That doesn't mean that socialism couldn't take hold here. There is little question that it could, and that the current Democratic Party has gone further in that direction than at any time since the 1930s.
Piketty himself certainly seems to have that goal -- to reach Americans with his book and thus change the world. On the subject of the long nightmare of the Soviet Union, Piketty and his legions of supporters say that there's a way to do leftism better, and that they're the ones to implement it:
Mr. Piketty is not the first utopian visionary. He cites, for instance, the "Soviet experiment" that allowed man to throw "off his chains along with the yoke of accumulated wealth." In his telling, it only led to human disaster because societies need markets and private property to have a functioning economy. He says that his solutions provide a "less violent and more efficient response to the eternal problem of private capital and its return." Instead of Austen and Balzac, the professor ought to read "Animal Farm" and "Darkness at Noon."
Even if Piketty were correct in his economic conclusions and the prescriptions that follow (which I do not think he is), would it be a good idea to implement them? I submit that it would not, if a person values liberty. The compromises with liberty that such policies would entail, and the consequences of depriving the somewhat-wealthy and the really wealthy of most of the fruits of their labor (which Piketty considers the unjustified and unearned fruits of their labor), are horrifying. Whether it would end with mass kulak-murder and the Gulag, or merely a soul-killing torpor induced by the fact that initiative and innovation would no longer be especially rewarded and sloth and covetousness would be encouraged, it sounds like the opposite of Utopia.