Few weep for the wealthy when they are attacked by redistributionists, but perhaps we should. Recent expressions of hatred for the so-called super-rich extend to the merely affluent, of course, but billionaires are much less likely to find sympathy. Those proposing to “abolish billionaires” by laying public claim to their assets and incomes have little reason to expect a popular backlash. Nevertheless, there are strong reasons to defend the wealthy and their right to control the riches they accumulate. Don Boudreaux has some words we should all take to heart:
“While exceptions no doubt exist, the people who get rich in our economy are overwhelmingly people who have made the rest of us richer.”
Boudreaux is correct in noting that “anti-billionaire” sentiment is marked in people who know little of the complexities of actually producing things. Wealth creation is a two-way street. On one end is a cadre of innovators and risk-takers whose rewards are often concentrated. On the other end are the many beneficiaries of those innovations: eager buyers of value-enhanced products whose rewards are relatively diffuse but very meaningful nonetheless. The same dynamic takes place in generating lower levels of wealth, among hard-working small entrepreneurs and savers. Eliminate one set of rewards and the other will vanish.
Redistributionists are aware of scarcity at a basic level, but it’s as if they take for granted that a certain quantity of product will be on the shelves irrespective of the policy environment, incentives, and basic guarantees of economic liberty. As Boudreaux says:
“If food, clothing, medical care, automobiles, houses, diamond rings, airplane seats, rolls of paper towels, and all other good and services were randomly rained down onto earth by some heavenly being, it would then be true that the more of these goodies that I manage to grab, the fewer are the goodies available for you to grab, and vice versa. … And so if through simple luck or sinister cunning I grab more than you grab, then the resulting inequality in our wealth has no good justification. If the government seizes from me a chunk of ‘my’ stuff and gives it to you, no ethical offense is committed.”
That’s not how it works in a world in which effort and resourcefulness are required to satisfy wants. Under a truly liberal order, such efforts are voluntary, motivated by the promise and prospect of secure rewards. And so, as consumers, we can possess the riches made possible through the efforts of innovators and risk-takers. If successful, their rewards are earned by producing value that not only exceeds their own costs, but exceeds the prices buyers are asked to pay. Today’s most prominent billionaires have brought to market products, services, and ways of transacting that we’d never have imagined even a few years prior to their introduction. Computer operating systems, smart phones, on-line retailing, and room- and ride-sharing are just a few examples.
Nick Gillespie makes much the same point in quoting Joseph Schumpeter:
“The capitalist engine is first and last an engine of mass production which unavoidably also means production for the masses. . . . It is the cheap cloth, the cheap cotton and rayon fabric, boots, motorcars and so on that are the typical achievements of capitalist production, and not as a rule improvements that would mean much to the rich man. Queen Elizabeth owned silk stockings. The capitalist achievement does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within reach of factory girls.”
Then there are the highly popular musicians and actors of the day, with wealth approaching (and in a few cases exceeding) $1 billion. Gillespie uses Paul McCartney as a case in point. Rather than “cheating” his way to wealth, McCartney’s fans would heartily agree that his talents are well worth the wealth he’s managed to accumulate. Would advocates of “abolishing” billionaires deny all this? They contend, in their own arbitrary judgment, that the market’s objective assessment cannot justify wealth of this magnitude.
Redistributionists also resent that anyone of wealth might have the gall to hold it or invest it rather than give it away. First, as noted above, secure rights provide the necessary incentives to create, produce, and take risks ex ante, which help enrich us all ex post. But those rights also must be secure ex post, and not subject to the whims of the next generation of socialist nitwits. In addition, as Gillespie says:
“Would there be less suffering in the world if [McCartney’s] money is expropriated and transferred to the wretched of the earth via higher taxes rather than through his own charitable donations and investments? Probably not, especially when you think about how much suffering, especially in the developing world, is the direct result of government action.”
Gillespie also marshals statistics on changes in measures of inequality that do not support the claims of redistributionists. In a separate post, Boudreaux makes that case here. Furthermore, the U.S. already has arguably the most progressive tax system in the developed world, even if transfers to the poor are not as generous as in some countries.
The sheer ignorance of many progressives is well illustrated by the “war against billionaires“. These critics of wealth demonstrate all the economic sophistication of preening high-school social studies students. Unfortunately, they are now coddled by certain established officeholders too eager to seek approval from the fringe left than to bother with responsible policy analysis.
It’s a short rhetorical step from condemning billionaires to condemning mere millionaires and sub-millionaires, and coveting their wealth. The victims here will ultimately include successful small business people and professionals who not only employ large segments of the population but also provide many of the services and wares we rely on in our day-to-day lives. Their success is not only well-earned: it is continuously exposed to risk from competitive forces. Rapacious politicians will never cease in their efforts to apply confiscatory taxes to the wealth of the very affluent. Soon enough, tax policy will reach farther down into the wealth distribution. These are games better suited to children or even vicious animals. Redistributionists think in zero-sum terms, with no appreciation for the positive-sum outcomes enabled by secure rights and free markets. Their failure to grasp the dynamics of free markets is at the root of their advocacy for disastrously negative-sum policies.