Income (In)equality and Freedom

It is the view of some that the primary task of our government is to engage in wealth redistribution so as to tend to equalize income—to equalize the results of individual effort, regardless of the level or quality of that effort.  There are problems with this asserted purpose, though, historical, practical, and moral.

During the extended discussion of our nation’s blueprint, James Madison wrote in The Federalist No. 10, for instance [emphasis mine],

The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government.

But these differences must, inevitably, result in different degrees of wealth, and of different degrees of income on the path to the accumulation of that wealth.  This diversity, though, is not a failing, but one of the strengths of our nation, one of the things that makes us exceptional, as we’ll see shortly.

Madison added, perhaps in anticipation of today’s debates, this:

The apportionment of taxes on the various descriptions of property is an act which seems to require the most exact impartiality; yet there is, perhaps, no legislative act in which greater opportunity and temptation are given to a predominant party to trample on the rules of justice.

This is especially a propos in light of the present effort to use taxes explicitly to achieve that wealth redistribution, rather than let men effect their own redistribution through a free market, wherein they freely exchange their wealth among each other as they exchange their goods and services—and money—at freely agreed prices.  The inevitable outcome of these exchanges is that all participants are richer after them than they were before, since all participants, after the exchanges, have gained something of value to them that they had not had before.

This takes me to the practical aspects of the failure of government-driven wealth redistribution.  Our nation’s principles statement acknowledges that all men are created equal.  The only way a government can redistribute wealth is to take from the wealthier and give to the less wealthy—i.e., to tax some more heavily than others, and then to give the proceeds of those taxes to the those less taxed—or today, to those not taxed at all.  But consider what happens when this is done.  Those from whom the fruits of their labor are taken—of necessity, arbitrarily—will have less incentive to continue their labors, and to the extent they do continue, it will not be with their original zeal.  What would be the point?  Their compensation for their labor will only be arbitrarily reduced.  Similarly, those who receive the fruits of others’ labor without having labored to the same extent or quality (those differing faculties) will have a reduced incentive to continue trying with their original zeal: they’re going to receive from government those others’ wealth, in any event.

Yet if each is left to his original equality of opportunity, to use to the fullest his own skill, work ethic, innate ability—his own faculties—he will be free to achieve his fullest potential—and yes, that will be differing levels of income and of wealth.  But that freedom to satisfy one’s own full potential, without government interference, is a part of that exceptionality of the United States.

It’s easy to see how this has played out over the last few decades of ever more active government-driven wealth redistribution.  Taxes on the middle class have been steadily reduced, the yet lower income classes have had their taxes reduced to near nothingness (and often receive tax credits—the wealth that others have earned).  This has been balanced by ever-increasing taxes on the upper classes—the so-called rich, the “millionaires and billionaires.”  Over the years until the 2010 mid-term elections, for instance, the top 10% of income earners have seen their share of the nation’s total income tax rise from 66% to 70%, while the bottom 50% of income earners have seen their share of the nation’s total income tax fall from 4% to 3%.  Yet the recipients of this wealth redistribution are even worse off—as Progressives insist with their plaints about today’s “increasing” income and wealth disparities.  Wealth redistribution, income leveling, doesn’t work by their own offered evidence.

This brings me to my third point, the morality of income redistribution.

Again from our principles statement, we understand that among our natural, inalienable rights is each man’s right to pursue his own happiness.

Here, John Adams is instructive.

All men are born free and independent, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights, among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.

Taking from some and giving to others denies to each their moral obligation.  One of the obligations resulting from all men being equal and all men having (an equal) right to pursue their own happiness is the obligation of each man to not be, routinely, a burden on other men either directly, or by imposing on each man’s obligation to help his fellows in their hour of need.  That hour cannot be allowed to last indefinitely.

Government-forced taking and giving denies the one the opportunity to satisfy his moral duty to see to his own happiness, and it denies the other the moral outcome of having seen to his happiness. Further, by routinely imposing on the obligation of the better off, the one imposing (or the government imposing in the one’s name) is, in effect, asserting a dominion over the one who is better off: he owes me because I exist, and he’s richer.  (And never mind that diversity of faculties that are spread across us all.)

In the end, equality of wealth, or of the income that contributed over time to the wealth, is not guarantor of individual freedom.  Indeed, this is quite the opposite: it is the destruction of freedom, since government, in ensuring greater “equality” must also ensure lesser freedoms through the necessary mandates and takings inherent in the redistribution.

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