Column on Wealth Redistribution

What about Wealth Redistribution?
Tibor R. Machan
Ever since Senator Obama’s brief exchange with “Joe the Plumber,” there
has been plenty of mention of wealth redistribution in the major media.
Then came the recovery of a 2001 interview in which the Senator faulted
the framers of the U. S Constitution, and the Founders who authored the
Declaration of Independence, for not including a right of everyone to be
helped with redistributed wealth. As some have noted, this was all
discussed in connection with the Civil Rights legislation which Senator
Obama also faulted for its lack of attention to wealth
redistribution–maybe reparation, as some have interpreted him. But the
central point was more general, clearly.
It is useful, then, to consider just what wealth redistribution is all
about. But to do that, we need to consider briefly what wealth is and what
amounts to its initial distribution such that some favor its being
Wealth is whatever someone owns that he or she and others consider
valuable, useful to themselves or others. The ownership, in turn, can
arise from working on what is given in nature or by way of earnings from
marketable labor, or from gifts and inheritance from those who had
earnings in the first place, or from good fortune (as when one wins the
lottery or unexpectedly finds oil beneath his land), etc.
There is an ancient dispute about whether such ownership is best regarded
as private or as public. At first the dispute was carried on in terms of
what type of ownership, private or public, would be most useful or
productive. Aristotle gave his defense of private property as follows:
“For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care
bestowed upon it. Every one thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of
the common interest; and only when he is himself concerned as an
individual. For besides other considerations, everybody is more inclined
to neglect the duty which he expects another to fulfill; as in families
many attendants are often less useful than a few." (Politics, 1262a30-37)
The historian Thucydides made a similar point when he spoke about owners
of public property. He wrote that “[T]hey devote a very small fraction of
the time to the consideration of any public object, most of it to the
prosecution of their own objects. Meanwhile, each fancies that no harm
will come to his neglect, that it is the business of somebody else to look
after this or that for him; and so, by the same notion being entertained
by all separately, the common cause imperceptibly decays. (Thucydides, The
History of the Peloponnesian War, bk. I, sec. 141).
It was, however, not until the English philosopher John Locke laid out his
theory of natural rights that more than a utilitarian case was produced in
favor the right to private property. For Locke once someone mixes his or
her labor with something in the wilds, that thing stops being public–or
God’s–and becomes, as a matter of morality, his or her private property.
This is because the work invested is properly rewarded with ownership.
Thereafter the owner has the right to hold on to the property, exchange it
from something else with willing others, give it as a gift to someone,
bequeath it to his or her offspring, and so forth. (As to wealth come by
via luck, no one is justified to take it from those who are lucky, it can
be inferred, otherwise people themselves could be enslaved with impunity.)
A very important feature of Locke’s idea, however, was that property
doesn’t belong to the king, state, or government but to private
individuals. It is they who work on elements of the natural world, of what
is not owned by anyone else, so they are free to obtain it, hold it, trade
it, etc. For others to stop them is wrong, a violation of natural rights.
Many have criticized all these ideas, especially people who hold that
everything belongs to everyone together and so wealth may not be freely
used and distributed by individuals, only by "the community." But, as
Aristotle and Thucydides and many others since them have made clear, this
idea is seriously flawed and entirely impractical. It leads to the tragedy
of the commons, of people all grabbing what they want from the common
wealth and failing to use it productively.
Both for moral reasons–the “first come, first gain” principle–and for
practical ones–community ownership leads to wastefulness–the principle
of private property rights gained influence in Western societies, in their
legal and economic systems. This is one main reason that when Senator
Obama suggested that what this country needs is systematic wealth
redistribution–routinely taking from private owners their wealth and
having governments distribute it to non-owners–many folks took umbrage.
This is quite an un-American, anti-free market capitalist idea and sounds
more like what is preached by socialists and communalists (even
Of course wealth redistribution is a big part of existing American society
but it is usually defended for special reasons, not as a general policy.
Senator Obama elevated what seemed to most to be an exception in this
country to a central feature of the society. And his opponent, of course,
couldn’t effectively criticize him because Republicans have been just as
willing to redistribute wealth as Democrats, albeit not advocate it as a
systematic feature of the legal system as Senator Obama did.

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