The continued refrain from the Obama administration is that they are engaged in a struggle against inequality. This may sound good for the denizens of class warfare, but in fact, it is a claim without substance.
In the eyes of God we may all be equals. Surely we are or should be equal before the law. But in every other respect, equality is a chimera. If you accept liberty as the precondition of a democratic state, some people will rise and some will fall. The desire to attend to one’s needs can go from the self-indulgent to the committed benefactor. Should equality be seen as realistic, ala philosopher John Rawls, the government must engineer every aspect of a life and, as a consequence, notwithstanding denials, limit freedom.
Income disparity may upset many people who harp on the growing valley between rich and poor, but attempts to close the gap artificially invariably run into the trap of government overreach. Tax policy is one example. Taking from some to give to others as a form of income redistribution rarely works. Should the tax be so high it militates against income increases, the tax base cannot sustain the transfer. And if the transfer is notable, e.g. two years of unemployment insurance, the incentives for work and effort are reduced.
Luck may play a role in success, a role invariably exaggerated by social engineers. More often than not, those with talent or an ability to recognize a niche in the marketplace prosper. Most of my colleagues in the academic world resent this success. Invariably they note “we are smarter than these bourgeois shopkeepers, but our rewards are not as great.” This is merely a reflection of envy that appears as a concern over income disparity.
Clearly creating opportunity is what a free market delivers along with mobility going up and going down. That opportunity isn’t always realized when an entitlement psychology settles in, an entitlement regimen promoted by government to buy votes and encourage dependency. It is curious, but instructive, that beneficence – the desire to help those who claim they need assistance – can convert a free man into a slave.
In the race for life, there is rarely a tie. Some will be at the finish line before others. The key is to try to make sure the race isn’t rigged. Of course, that cannot be guaranteed since some will have superior genetic material. But if there is one thing the government should do, it is push the barriers operating against the free market aside. Let those who want to run do so without an artificial weight around their ankles.
This was the assumption behind the founding of the nation. It was the point reiterated in the 1965 Civil Rights Act which stated that neither race nor ethnicity should be an advantage or a handicap. Fairness is a condition found in the eye of the beholder. But freedom is not merely subjective; it is bred in the bone. It is what gives life its meaning. To superordinate equality as a national goal, as the president has, is to subordinate freedom.
Should there be a desire to close the income gap – a dubious goal in the first place – I contend we should let the free market perform its magic unhindered. The government should get out of the way and its rhetoric might shift to the principles of liberty, individualism and freedom. These are the foundation stones of this republic and we would be wise to remember them.
Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America). You can read all of Herb London’s commentaries at www.londoncenter.org
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