income inequality

Mass (Economic) Hysteria: Income Inequality and Related Themes

It seems as though everyone’s talking and writing about stagnant wages, growing income inequality, gender discrimination in pay, concentration of wealth, no/less/too-little upward mobility, shrinking middle class, foreclosure of opportunity, end of the American Dream, higher mortality rates (due to income inequality), and on and on and on. (Insert exclamation marks to heighten the sense of outrage.)

All of these complaints — which emanate from the left and resound loudly in the media — presuppose the existence of several Platonic ideals; for example: correct wage levels, correct degrees of income and wealth inequality, correct rates of upward (and downward) mobility, an actually identifiable and permanent middle class, a measurable and optimum amount of opportunity, a definition of the American Dream that is more than pablum, and on and on.

All such ideals, of course, exist only in the minds of those who complain about stagnant wages, etc. But no matter — any excuse for further government intervention in the economy will do. And further government intervention will only harm those persons whom it is meant to help, by further reducing the rate of economic growth.

But nothing daunts true believers — Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong, Joseph Stiglitz, and their ilk — who always want government to “do something.” Their preachings bolster the pro-government-spending biases of most pundits and a large fraction of politicians. One aim of the true believers is to shape the fickle mood of the general public and garner support for government action.

Anyway, the various manifestations of economic hysteria listed in the opening paragraph can be met with logic and facts — and often are. (See the list of readings at the bottom of this post.) It’s unlikely that logic and facts will sway those who are emotionally committed to the exaction of redistributive justice, and who have no interest in its infeasibility, high costs, and perverse consequences. But until that lucky day when legitimate government is restored to the United States, its defenders must rely on logic and facts.

Consider income inequality. Not only is there inequality — which should be unsurprising, given inequality of ability, ambition, etc. — but there is supposedly a growing gap between America’s “haves” and “have-nots.” A do-gooder would leave it at that. Not being one of them, I’ll ask the questions that they’re unwilling/afraid/too-jejune to ask:

  1. What is a have? Is it someone/a household whose income exceeds the median for all persons/households? Is in the top 20 percent of all such incomes? The top 5 percent? The top 1 percent? The top 0.1 percent? (Pick your favorite point along the continuous curves in the graphs here.)
  2. Or is a have defined by his/her/its wealth? And, if so, how? (See preceding bullet.)
  3. Do haves “rig the game” so that they are, in effect, stealing from have-nots?
  4. If haves are clever and determined enough to do that, isn’t it likely that they’d still be haves without “rigging the game”?
  5. Is one’s economic status a permanent thing, or do people in fact move up and down the economic ladder during their lifetimes?
  6. Are the have-nots of today — who, mostly, aren’t the have-nots of yesteryear — really worse off than their predecessors, or are they really better off?
  7. Are they worse off relatively?
  8. Will tomorrow’s have-nots be better off if the haves are deprived of income/wealth through redistributive actions taken by government?
  9. Or will redistributive actions simply make haves worse off and less likely to do the things that make have-nots better off (e.g., give huge sums to charity, invest in growth-producing investments)?

Questions 1 and 2 are unanswerable; the distinction between a have and a have-not is purely arbitrary. (It has been said, with some accuracy, that a rich person is someone who has more more money than you.) The answers to the other questions are: (3) only to the extent that some of them are aided by government through perverse regulations favored by do-gooders; (4) yes; (5) not permanent, plenty of movement; (6) better-off absolutely than earlier have-nots; (7) probably about the same, relatively, but they’re mostly different people; (8) worse off; (9) yes, redistributive actions make have-nots worse off by hindering economic growth. (For more, see the list of readings, below.)

Before signing off, I want to say a bit more about haves, have-nots, rigging the game, and hypocritical politicians:

Most of the haves — given their ambition, intelligence, and particular skillswould succeed famously, even without rigging the game in their favor. In any event, government does most of the rigging — mainly to “protect” the have-nots from “ruthless” operators. For example, there’s licensing and regulatory barriers to entry to high-paying professions, such as the creation and trading of financial instruments, doctoring, lawyering, and making licensed, patented drugs. The entire left-leaning entertainment industry thrives on government-granted copyrights

In free markets, there would be no rigging, or it wouldn’t last long because the high profits generated by rigging would entice competition. So, if you want to blame rigging for the advantages enjoyed by the haves, blame their cronies in government, many of whom make a career of crying (all the way to the bank) about inequality. (Relevant aside: It is no coincidence that in 2012, five of the top-six counties in median household income were in the D.C. area.)

Isn’t is strange that most of the pissing and moaning about inequality emanates from people who are either in high-income brackets or whose political rank enables them to live as if they were? (Obama, Biden, and members of Congress, I’m looking at you.) Isn’t it evident that the pissing and moaning results mainly from economic illiteracy, guilt, and political opportunism? It should be evident, unless you’re a complete naïf of the kind who still believes in the tooth fairy and free lunches.

I must add that I have yet to meet a pro-equality “liberal” who pays more taxes than demanded of him by the IRS, opens his house to the homeless, or associates with the unwashed masses. As Victor Davis Hanson observes, there are no (true) socialists among the powerful and affluent lefties who spout egalitarian slogans.

I’ve addressed income inequality and related matters in several posts, including “The Last(?) Word about Income Inequality,” “Taxing the Rich,” “More about Taxing the Rich,” “In Defense of the 1%,” and “Progressive Taxation Is Alive and Well in the U.S. of A,” “How High Should Taxes Be?,” and “Some Inconvenient Facts about Income Inequality.” (See also the links embedded in and appended to those posts.)

There’s much more on the web. The following is a small sample of the vast trove of reasoned, fact-filled writings that leftists ignore because they prefer myths to facts.

Income inequality, wealth inequality, and economic mobility
Diana Furchtgott-Roth, “The Myth of Increasing Income Inequality,” The Manhattan Institute, Issues 2012, March 2012
James Pethokoukis, “Obama’s Fact-Challenged Inequality Speech,” AEIdeas, July 26, 2013
James Pethokoukis, “3 Charts That Show What’s Really Going On with Economic Mobility in the U.S.,” AEIdeas, December 12, 2013
James Pethokoukis, “If All You Know about Income Inequality Is This Famous Chart, You Really Don’t Know Much,” AEIdeas, December 23, 2013
Don Boudreaux, “Questions about and for Those People Obsessed with Income Inequality,” Cafe Hayek, December 24, 2013
Raj Chetty, et al., “Is the United States Still a Land of Opportunity? Recent Trends in Intergenerational Mobility,” Working Paper 19844, National Bureau of Economic Research, January 2014 (related: N. Gregory Mankiw, “How Much Income Inequality Is Explained by Varying Parental Resources?,” Greg Mankiw’s Blog, January 24, 2014)
John Goodman, “Myths about Inequality,” John Goodman’s Health Policy Blog, January 15, 2014
Thomas Sowell, “Fact-Free Liberals (parts I, II, and III),” creators.com, January 21, 2014
James Pethokoukis, “Does Obama Know That Wealth Inequality Is Lower Now Than 25 Years Ago?,” AEIdeas, January 21, 2014
Ironman, “Debunking Income Inequality Theory,” Political Calculations, January 23, 2014
David Harsanyi, “State of the Union: Maybe You’re Not As Screwed As They Think You Are,” The Federalist, January 27, 2014
David Henderson, “Why Income Mobility Is Larger in the Middle,” EconLog, February 10, 2014
Linda Gorman, “More Accurate Measures Suggest Declining Income Inequality [not that it matters, one way or the other],” John Goodman’s Health Policy Blog, March 14, 2014

Executive pay, the “undeserving” rich, and the “1%”
James Pethokoukis, “Stunning New Study Dismantles Obama’s ’1% vs. 99%’ Inequality Argument,” AEIdeas, August 16, 2013
James Pethokoukis, “Why Steven Kaplan Says Brad DeLong Is Wrong about CEO Pay, the Superstar Theory, and Income Inequality,” AEIdeas, August 19, 2013
James Pethokoukis, “Why the Much-Hyped Oxfam Study on Global Inequality Is Misleading,” AEIdeas, January 21, 2014
Don Boudreaux, “Deidre McClosky on Oxfam’s Calculation of World Wealth ‘Distribution’,” Cafe Hayek, January 27, 2014
Walter E. Williams, “Politics of Hate and Envy,” creators.com, January 29, 2014
Robert J. Samuelson, “Myth-Making about Economic Inequality,” RealClearPolitics, February 3, 2014
N. Gregory Mankiw, “Yes, the Wealthy Can Be Deserving,” The New York Times, February 15, 2014
N. Gregory Mankiw, “CEO’s Are Paid for Performance,” Greg Mankiw’s Blog, February 17, 2014
Mark J. Perry, “‘Rich America Is Not the ‘Idle Rich’, but rather a Working America, an Educated America, and a Married America,” Carpe Diem, February 19, 2014

Rigging the system: “our” government at work
Bruce Yandle, “Bootleggers and Baptists,” Regulation, May/June 1983
Bruce Yandle “Bootleggers and Baptists in Retrospect,” Regulation, Fall 1999
Richard K. Vedder, “Federal Government Has Declared War on Work,” Commentary Articles, The Independent Institute, January 20, 2014

The effect of assortative mating on household income
Henry Harpending, “Class, Caste, and Genes,” West Hunter, January 13, 2012
Henry Harpending and Gregory Cochran, “Assortative Mating, Class, and Caste,” manuscript, December 1, 2013
Jeremy Greenwood et al., “Marry Your Like: Assortative Mating and Income Inequality,” Population Studies Center, University of Pennsylvania, January 12, 2014
Ironman, “In Which We’re Vindicated. Again.,” Political Calculations, January 28, 2014

The non-war on the middle class, women, and blacks
Mark J. Perry, “Yes, the Middle Class Has Been Disappearing, but They Haven’t Fallen into the Lower Class, They’ve Risen into the Upper Class,” Carpe Diem, July 12, 2013
Steve Sailer, “Breakthrough Study: Poor Blacks Tend to Stay Poor, Black,” Vdare.com, July 24, 2013
John B. Taylor, “The Weak Recovery Explains Rising Inequality, Not Vice Versa,” WSJ.com, September 9, 2013
John B. Taylor, “My Take on the Middle-Out View,” Economics One, September 9, 2013
James Bessen, “No, Technology Isn’t Going to Destroy the Middle Class,” The Washington Post, October 21, 2013
Bryan Caplan, “Is Average Over? Two Equivocal Graphs,” EconLog, January 4, 2014
N. Gregory Mankiw, “Does Income Inequality Increase Mortality?,” Greg Mankiw’s Blog, January 29, 2014
Christina Hoff Sommers, “No, Women Don’t Make Less Money Than Men,” The Daily Beast, February 1, 2014

Some Inconvenient Facts about Income Inequality

Follow these three links at Census.gov and you’ll find Table P-28, Educational Attainment—Workers 18 Years Old and Over by Mean Earnings, Age and Sex. (Similar tables are available, but the numbers reported in P-28 are based on a consistent definition of educational attainment.) Drawing on Table P-28, I constructed the following statistics for 1992 and 2012, which are years with similar rates of growth in GDP per capita (2.19 percent and 2.05 percent, respectively):

Employment earnings and 20-year changes in earnings

Men and women are separated because it’s a fact of life that — on average — they don’t earn the same incomes. This isn’t a matter of discrimination, but of differences in education (discipline as well as level of attainment), occupation, experience, and hours worked. (See, for example, “No, Women Don’t Make Less Money Than Men,” The Daily Beast, February 2, 2014.)

Tables 1, 2, 4, and 5 show something that should surprise no one: income rises with age (a proxy for experience) and level of education. This is a key fact that is never mentioned in the usual blather about income inequality. (There is, of course, a drop in real earnings among persons 65 and older, which reflects the fact that most persons in that age bracket have retired or shifted to part-time work.)

Tables 3 and 6 are especially interesting for what they reveal about changes in real income between 1992 and 2012 for cohorts at various levels of educational attainment. For example, the real earnings of men with a 9th grade education who were 18-24 years old in 1992 had risen by 94 percent 20 years later, when they were in the 35-44 age bracket.

Among the male cohorts under the age of 65 in 2012, only one (of  24) experienced a decline in real earnings. Male cohorts in the 35-54 age range show impressive rises in real income between 1992 and 2012. Among women, no cohort below age 65 experienced a drop in real income between 1992 and 2012; and most experienced a healthy increase.

Of course, some persons who worked full-time in 2012 earned less in that year than they did as full-time workers in 1992. But it’s evident that those 20 years were good for almost everyone. Otherwise, the numbers wouldn’t look as good as they do. In addition to the evidence of tables 3 and 6, consider this:  average real earnings rose by 24 percent between 1992 and 2012. (So much for wage stagnation.)

Tables 3 and 6 indicate that persons high levels of educational attainment have done better than persons at the low end of the educational ladder. That’s simply a fact of economic life, not the result of a conspiracy. It reflects the ever-increasing demand for highly technical goods and services — from nanosurgery to Google glass. In 2012, there were 1.7 million, 8.3 million, and 17.1 million persons in the top 1-, 5-, and 10-percent income brackets. Such large numbers are hardly the stuff of conspiracies.

What about the distribution of incomes? (Note to the uninitiated: Incomes aren’t “distributed,” they’re earned. “Distribution,” in this context, is shorthand for frequency distribution, a statistical term. Unfortunately, too many people interpret “distribution” as a reference to a mysterious and conspiratorial doling out of a big pie in the sky.) Taking into account the number of persons represented in each age-education group, I constructed these distributions for 1992 and 2012:

Mean income by percentile, 2012 vs 1992

The two curves have almost the same Gini coefficient: 0.239 for 1992, 0.242 for 2012. That is to say, the distribution of average incomes (taking men and women together) wasn’t any less equal in 2012 than it was in 1992.

The details for 2012 are in the next table. (Professional degrees include MD, JD, DDS, DVM, and similarly occupation-specific advanced degrees; doctorates include PhD and EdD.) The mean is $46,615; the median, $42,250.

Mean income by percentile, sex, education, age - 2012

And don’t forget, these numbers include part-timers as well as full-timers; college students as well as high-school dropouts; and a large contingent of under-educated (and probably not very bright) oldsters. These numbers don’t include the many sources of income and income-in-kind represented in the “social safety net”: unemployment compensation, disability benefits, survivors’ benefits, food stamps, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and on and on.

Note to Obama and friends: Go peddle your phony stories about income inequality where they’ll be appreciated — Tsarist Russia, for example.

*     *      *

Related posts:
Why We Deserve What We Earn
Who Decides Who’s Deserving?
The Main Causes of Prosperity
Why Class Warfare Is Bad for Everyone
Fighting Myths with Facts
Debunking More Myths of Income Inequality
Ten Commandments of Economics
More Commandments of Economics
On Income Inequality
The Causes of Economic Growth
The Last(?) Word about Income Inequality
Status, Spite, Envy, and Income Redistribution
The Causes of Economic Growth
A Short Course in Economics
Addendum to a Short Course in Economics
The Price of Government
Does the Minimum Wage Increase Unemployment?
The Price of Government Redux
The Mega-Depression
The Real Burden of Government
Toward a Risk-Free Economy
Enough of “Social Welfare”
A True Flat Tax
Taxing the Rich
More about Taxing the Rich
In Defense of the 1%
Lay My (Regulatory) Burden Down
The Burden of Government
How High Should Taxes Be?
The 80-20 Rule, Illustrated
Economics: A Survey (also here)
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Spending Inhibits Economic Growth
Progressive Taxation Is Alive and Well in the U.S. of A.

Not-So-Random Thoughts (V)

UPDATED (08/13/12)

This is the fifth of a series of occasional posts that link to and discuss writings on matters that have been treated by this blog. The first edition is here; the second, here; the third, here; the fourth, here; and the sixth, here.

Added 08/13/12: Patience as a Tool of Strategy

I wrote about this a while ago. My closing thoughts:

Patience is not a virtue that accrues to amorphous masses, like nations. It can be found only in individuals or groups of individuals who share the same objectives and are able to work together long enough to attain those objectives. Whether such individuals or groups lead nations — and lead them wisely — is another matter.

Imlac’s Journal has a relevant post, about Roman consul and general Fabius Maximus (280 – 203 B.C.),

exemplary in terms of his patience, endurance and self-sacrifice.  He reminds one in many ways of George Washington. Both men lost battles, but in the long run their steady and sensible strategies won wars.

It is possible to be impatient in small things — to have a hair-trigger temper — and yet to be patient in the quest for a major goal. Impatience in small things may even serve the strategy of patience, if impatience (deployed sparingly and selectively) helps to maintain discipline among the ranks.

Added 08/13/12: Beauty-ism

I was amused to find that my post “How to Combat Beauty-ism” has been linked to in the opening paragraph of “Beauty and the Beast: The ‘Othering’ of Women by the Beauty Industry.” This post is on the website of something called The South African Civil Society Information Service: A nonprofit news agency promoting social justice. Seeking answers to the question: How do we make democracy work for the poor?

The author, one Gillian Schutte, who seems to be a regular contributor, is styled “an award winning independent filmmaker, writer and social justice activist.” Ms. Schutte (if “Ms.” is the proper appellation for a South African) appears to be a well-groomed, passably attractive (but not beautiful) person of middle age. She writes:

Beautyism is an assumption that physical appeal prevails [sic] knowledge, value, or anything personable [sic]. It is the inherent bias that bestows all sorts of unproved talents and privileges onto a person simply because she is beautiful.

And it could be, as Ms. Schutte’s writing demonstrates, that a lack of beauty is no guarantee of intelligence. In fact, it might be a source of bitterness, which surfaces as rage against the West and those who dare to be civilized and prosperous. Thus, according to Schutte, the beauty industry

along with the mainstream media, is premised on beautyism and has employed a very effective tool of “othering” those who do not fit into the idealised picture of what is pleasing to the male gaze….

“[O]thering” is a tactic that is used in the marginalisation of many groups of people by the moneyed mainstream. These include the LGBTI sector, the poor, Muslims, and Blacks – and they are marginalised so that those doing the marginalisation can use them as a means to an end. An example is the demonization of Islam in order to push the imperialist oil grabbing agenda of the West.

Wow! From beauty-ism (my preferred spelling) to oil-grabbing in a single post.

I have not seen any oil-grabbing recently, unless it is considered oil-grabbing when Westerners choose to buy the oil that Islamic nations deign to offer for sale. If Islam has been demonized, chalk it up to Islamic extremists, who — among many things — have committed acts of terror against innocents, have punished and murdered persons of the “LGBTI sector,” and are not known for their appreciation of the social value of women, except as bed-partners, bearers of children, and domestic slaves. Such is the selective outrage of the professional “social justice activist.” I could not have written a better parody of “social justice activism” than the one that Ms. Schutte has unwittingly produced.

Income Inequality — The Pseudo-Problem That Will Not Die

The Mismeasure of Inequality” (Kip Hagopian and Lee Ohaian, Policy Review, August 1, 2012) is as thorough a primer on the pseudo-problem of inequality as anyone is likely to find, anywhere. The authors’ facts and logic will not convince hard-leftists who believe in income redistribution and are blind and deaf to its dire consequences for low-income persons. But reasonable people might be swayed.

Closely related are Deirdre McCloskey’s powerful defense of free markets: “Actual Free Market Fairness” (Bleeding Heart Libertarians, June 26 2012) and authoritative demolition of MIchael Sandel’s anti-market screed, “What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limit of Markets” (Prudentia, August 1, 2012).

Related posts:
The Causes of Economic Growth
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
A Short Course in Economics
Democracy and Liberty
Addendum to a Short Course in Economics
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
The Near-Victory of Communism
Accountants of the Soul
Rawls Meets Bentham
The Left
Enough of “Social Welfare”
A True Flat Tax
A True Flat Tax
Taxing the Rich
More about Taxing the Rich
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
More Social Justice
Luck-Egalitarianism and Moral Luck
Nature Is Unfair
Elizabeth Warren Is All Wet
“Occupy Wall Street” and Religion
Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice
More about Merit Goods
What Is Bleeding-Heart Libertarianism?
The Morality of Occupying Private Property
In Defense of the 1%

Cass Sunstein

Ken Masugi’s “Missing the Significance of Cass Sunstein” (Library of Law and Liberty, August 7, 2012) is a just indictment of Sunstein’s anti-libertarian agenda. For example:

Sunstein has written among the most radical critiques of the American Constitution ever espoused. While not a Marxist revolutionary, his criticism is scarcely less transformative. His project of radicalizing the New Deal and the work of Progressives is captured in the subtitle to his book The Second Bill of Rights: FDR’s Unfinished Revolution and Why We Need It More than Ever. But the book that is even more explicit is After the Rights Revolution: Reconceiving the Regulatory State (1993).

Sunstein claims to present the regulatory measures of bureaucratic government “in a way that is fundamentally faithful” to the American Constitution. The book’s second sentence acknowledges that “Modern regulation has profoundly affected constitutional democracy, by renovating the original commitments to checks and balances, federalism, and individual rights.” That transformation of basic constitutional principles “culminated in the rights revolution of the 1960s and 1970s”—meaning the Great Society and post-Watergate programs. Sunstein’s task is to reinterpret the regulatory regime “in a way that is fundamentally faithful to constitutional commitments and promotes, in a dramatically different environment, the central goals of the constitutional system—freedom and welfare.”

Sunstein weaves three “more particular goals” throughout the book: 1.) the practical one of combating the Reagan and Thatcher reforms, which were based on market principles and “private right,” 2.) defending the history of government regulation in America, and 3.) proposing “a theory of interpretation that courts (and administrative agencies) …. might invoke in order to improve the performance of modern government.” Sunstein emphasizes that he wishes to save the “basic commitments of the American constitutional system,” not the text of the Constitution or the structure it sets forth. Of course the “rights revolution” has transformed the meaning of those commitments, so we are left in a universe that is open to Sunstein’s creative interpretation. As Postell observes, “The final triumph of postmodernism is to avail itself of modern or pre-modern justifications whenever they come in handy, and disparage them when they don’t.”

This post-modern perspective is richly abundant throughout After the Rights Revolution. If you thought freedom of speech is a “basic commitment” of America, think again: The “fairness doctrine” and even more extreme measures are justified to protect citizens from injuries to their “character, beliefs, and even conduct.” (For Sunstein’s regulatory schemes for the internet, including schemes for requiring links and pop-ups to alternative points of view, see Edward Erler’s Claremont Review of Books  essay, “Liberalchic.gov”)  In a regime of equal opportunity, racial preferences remedy market failures that permit employment discrimination. Of course property rights yield to the common good, as determined by political arrangements on behalf of the general welfare. Thus, the Civil War was fought not to affirm the founding principle of self-government (not to mention the quaint notion that each man owns himself) but to herald the regulatory regime of the New Deal.

With “friends” like Sunstein, liberty and the Constitution need no enemies.

Related posts:
Sunstein at the Volokh Conspiracy
More from Sunstein
Cass Sunstein’s Truly Dangerous Mind
An (Imaginary) Interview with Cass Sunstein
Libertarian Paternalism
Slippery Sunstein
A Libertarian Paternalist’s Dream World
The Short Answer to Libertarian Paternalism
Second-Guessing, Paternalism, Parentalism, and Choice
Another Thought about Libertarian Paternalism
Back-Door Paternalism
Another Voice Against the New Paternalism
Sunstein and Executive Power
The Feds and “Libertarian Paternalism”
A Further Note about “Libertarian” Paternalism
Apropos Paternalism
FDR and Fascism
Fascism
Are We All Fascists Now?
Fascism with a “Friendly” Face
Fascism and the Future of America
Discounting and Libertarian Paternalism
The Mind of a Paternalist
Another Entry in the Sunstein Saga
Don’t Use the “S” Word When the “F” Word Will Do

Free Will

This perennial subject of philosophical and psychological debate gets another going-over by Steven Landsburg, in “Free to Choose” (The Big Questions, July 18, 2012). Landsburg defends the idea of free will. I prefer my defense (from “Free Will: A Proof by Example?“):

Is there such a thing as free will, or is our every choice predetermined? Here’s a thought experiment:

Suppose I think that I might want to eat some ice cream. I go to the freezer compartment and pull out an unopened half-gallon of vanilla ice cream and an unopened half-gallon of chocolate ice cream. I can’t decide between vanilla, chocolate, some of each, or none. I ask a friend to decide for me by using his random-number generator, according to rules of his creation. He chooses the following rules:

  • If the random number begins in an odd digit and ends in an odd digit, I will eat vanilla.
  • If the random number begins in an even digit and ends in an even digit, I will eat chocolate.
  • If the random number begins in an odd digit and ends in an even digit, I will eat some of each flavor.
  • If the random number begins in an even digit and ends in an odd digit, I will not eat ice cream.

Suppose that the number generated by my friend begins in an even digit and ends in an even digit: the choice is chocolate. I act accordingly.

I didn’t inevitably choose chocolate because of events that led to the present state of my body’s chemistry, which might otherwise have dictated my choice. That is, I broke any link between my past and my choice about a future action.

I call that free will.

I suspect that our brains are constructed in such a way as to produce the same kind of result in many situations, though certainly not in all situations. That is, we have within us the equivalent of an impartial friend and an (informed) decision-making routine, which together enable us to exercise something we can call free will….

Even if our future behavior is tightly linked to our past and present states of being — and to events outside of us that have their roots in the past and present — those linkages are so complex that they are safely beyond our comprehension and control.

If nothing else, we know that purposive human behavior can make a difference in the course of human events. Given that, and given how little we know about the complexities of existence, we might as well have free will.

See also “Is Free Will an Illusion?” (a virtual colloquium at The Chronicle of Higher Education), “Brain might not stand in the way of free will” (New Scientist, August 9, 2012), and my post, “Free Will, Crime, and Punishment.”

Not-So-Random Thoughts

This is the first of a series of occasional posts that link to and discuss writings on matters that have been treated by this blog. The second edition is here; the third, here; the fourth, here; the fifth, here; and the sixth, here.

Secession

Ilya Somin, writing at The Volokh Conspiracy, on secession:

The US Constitution, of course, is one of many where secession is neither explicitly banned or explicitly permitted. As a result, both critics and defenders of a constitutional right of secession have good arguments for their respective positions. Unlike the preceding Articles of Confederation, the Constitution does not include a Clause stating that the federal union is “perpetual.” While the Articles clearly banned secession, the Constitution is ambiguous on the subject.

Even if state secession is constitutionally permissible, the Confederate secession of 1861 was deeply reprehensible because it was undertaken for the profoundly evil purpose of perpetuating and extending slavery. But not all secession movements have such motives. Some are undertaken for good or at least defensible reasons. In any event, there is nothing inherently contradictory about the idea of a legal secession.

Of course, whether or not a secession is legal, it may be morally justified. Conversely, a legal secession may be morally unjustified, as was the case with the Southern secession. But the history of the Southern secession does not taint the legal and moral grounds for secession. As I say here,

The constitutional contract is a limited grant of power to the central government, for the following main purposes: keeping peace among the States, ensuring uniformity in the rules of inter-State and international commerce, facing the world with a single foreign policy and a national armed force, and assuring the even-handed application of the Constitution and of constitutional laws. That is all.

It is clear that the constitutional contract has been breached. It is clear that the Constitution’s promise to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity”  has been blighted.

Desperate times require desperate measures. I suggest that we begin at the beginning, with a new Declaration of Independence, and proceed from there to a new Constitution.

Obamacare

In a post at The American, John F. Gaski writes:

On the central issue of ObamaCare’s notorious mandate—i.e., whether it is constitutional for the federal government to compel a consumer purchase—everything hinges on the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause. That element of the Constitution gives the federal government authority to regulate interstate commerce or activities affecting it. So far, so reasonable.

But the crux of the issue is whether forcing Americans to buy healthcare is regulation of commerce in the first place. Opponents note that non-purchase of healthcare should not be considered commerce or commerce-related activity. ObamaCare apologists, including some federal judges, make the remarkable claim that a decision not to purchase qualifies as interstate commerce or activity affecting interstate commerce, the same as a decision to purchase or a purchase itself. But even the non-partisan Congressional Research Service, in its 2009 assessment of likely PPACA constitutionality, acknowledged that Commerce Clause-based federal regulatory authority targets genuine activities that affect interstate commerce, not inactivity.

How to resolve this disagreement? The answer is staring us in the face, but has remained obscure to some lawyers and jurists who cannot quite see the forest for the trees. All you really need to know is what the word “commerce” means. To wit, commerce is “exchange of goods, products, or property . . . ; extended trade” (Britannica World Language Dictionary, 1959); “the buying and selling of goods . . .; trade” (Webster’s New World Dictionary, 1964); “the buying and selling of commodities; trade” (The Merriam-Webster Dictionary, 1974); “interchange of goods or commodities, especially on a large scale . . . ; trade; business” (Dictionary.com, 2012). Uniformly, we see, the definition of commerce involves activity, not just a decision to act, and certainly not a decision to not act. The meaning of the concept of commerce presumes action, and always has. Moreover, even casual philology will confirm that the accepted meaning of “commerce” at the time of the Constitution’s drafting referenced activity, not inactivity, at least as much then as it does now (see C. H. Johnson, William & Mary Bill of Rights Journal, October 2004). In the same way, the Commerce Clause has long been construed to apply to action in or affecting commerce, from the 1824 Gibbons v. Ogden Supreme Court case onward.

I am in complete agreement:

[T]he real issue … comes down to this: Does Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce extend to “health care” generally, just because some aspects of it involve interstate commerce? In particular, can Congress constitutionally impose the individual mandate under the rubric of the Commerce Clause or the Necessary and Proper Clause?…

It is safe to say that a proper reading of the Constitution, as exemplified in the authoritative opinions excerpted above, yields no authority for Obamacare. That monstrosity — the official, Orwellian title of which is the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) — attempts to reach an aggregation known as “health care,” without any differentiation between interstate commerce, intrastate commerce, and activities that are part of neither, namely, the choices of individuals with respect to health insurance.

It may be a valid exercise of Congress’s power to regulate actual interstate commerce that touches on the provision of health care. It is not a valid exercise to aggregate everything called “health care” and to regulate it as if it were all within the reach of Congress. When that happens, there is no room left — in “health care” nor, by extension, any other loose aggregation of activities — for State action or individual choice.

In sum, Obamacare is neither a valid regulation of interstate commerce nor necessary and proper to a valid regulation of interstate commerce. It is a governmental seizure of 1/9th of the economy. The individual mandate — which is a central feature of that seizure — is nothing more than coercion. It is no less peremptory than the military draft.

Freedom of Conscience

Yes, Virginia, there is freedom of conscience in Virginia:

A bill that ensures that faith-based adoption agencies in the state of Virginia won’t be forced to place children in households led by same-sex couples has passed both houses of the General Assembly and is heading to the desk of Gov. Robert McDonnell, a supporter of the legislation, who is expected to sign it soon.

Gov. McDonnell and the majorities in the Virginia legislature are standing up for freedom of conscience, which is among the negative rights that is trampled by grants of  “positive rights” (i.e., privileges). These

are the products of presumption — judgments about who is “needy” and “deserving” — and they are bestowed on some by coercing others. These coercions extend not only to the seizure of income and wealth but also to denials of employment (e.g., affirmative action), free speech (e.g., campaign-finance “reform”), freedom of contract (e.g., mandatory recognition of unions), freedom of association (e.g., forced admission of certain groups to private organizations), freedom of conscience (e.g., forced participation in abortions), and on and on.

Income Inequality

Thomas A. Garrett, a sensible economist, says good things about income inequality:

The apparent increase in U.S. income inequality has not escaped the attention of policymakers and social activists who support public policies aimed at reducing income inequality. However, the common measures of income inequality that are derived from the census statistics exaggerate the degree of income inequality in the United States for several reasons. Furthermore, although income inequality is seen as a social ill by many people, it is important to understand that income inequality has many economic benefits and is the result of, and not a detriment to, a well-functioning economy….

…[O]ver time, a significant number of households move to higher positions along the income distribution and a significant number move to lower positions along the income distribution. Common reference to “classes” of people (e.g., the lowest 20 percent, the richest 10 percent) is very misleading because income classes do not contain the same households and people over time….

The unconstrained opportunity for individuals to create value for society, which is reflected by their income, encourages innovation and entrepreneurship. Economic research has documented a positive correlation between entrepreneurship/innovation and overall economic growth.9 A wary eye should be cast on policies that aim to shrink the income distribution by redistributing income from the more productive to the less productive simply for the sake of “fairness.” 10 Redistribution of wealth would increase the costs of entrepreneurship and innovation, with the result being lower overall economic growth for everyone.

I am losing track of the posts in which I have made the same points. See this one and this one, and the posts linked in each of them.

The Left-Libertarian (“Liberal”) Personality vs. Morality

Will Wilkinson, a left-libertarian (i.e., modern “liberal”) if ever there was one, writes about his score on the Big-Five Personality Test:

I score very high in “openness to experience” and worryingly low in “conscientiousness”.

A true libertarian (i.e., a Burkean) would score high on “openness to experience” and high on “conscientiousness” — as I do.

As I have said, differences

between various libertarian camps and between libertarians, Burkean conservatives, yahoo conservatives, “liberals,” and so on — are due as much to differences of temperament as they are to differences in knowledge and intelligence.

But temperament is a reason for political error, not an excuse for it:

[T]he desirability or undesirability of state action has nothing to do with the views of “liberals,” “libertarians,” or any set of pundits, “intellectuals,” “activists,” and seekers of “social justice.” As such, they have no moral standing, which one acquires only by being — and acting as — a member of a cohesive social group with a socially evolved moral code that reflects the lessons of long coexistence. The influence of “intellectuals,” etc., derives not from the quality of their thought or their moral standing but from the influence of their ideas on powerful operatives of the state.

See also:
Libertarianism and Morality
Libertarianism and Morality: A Footnote

More about Taxing the Rich

This is a sequel to “Taxing the Rich,” which reproduces my correspondence with a correspondent who laments the unequal “distribution” of income and wealth. This installment is heavily edited, for the sake of brevity. And, for the sake of clarity, I have reorganized our exchange so that each of his points (in italics) is followed immediately by my response (in bold type).

My correspondent opens by referring to a link that I sent him about the distribution of wealth in the United States:

Granted 25% owning 87%  is a lot better than 2% owning 90% like in S. America, but satisfactory? Warren Buffett doesn’t think so. Nor George Soros. Nor do I. So certainly not revolution, but reformation seems in order.

It may be that George Soros and Warren Buffet don’t like the way things are, but their own wealth merely proves that they’re good at making money, not at setting economic policy for the country. Experts who venture outside their own fields of expertise remind me of the doctors who used to endorse Camel cigarettes.

I’m not sure why it’s “bad” that one-fourth of the people in this country own a relatively large fraction of the wealth in this country. The composition of the one-fourth has changed greatly over time, and will continue to change greatly. There’s no entrenched aristocracy that somehow controls the country or determines who gets how much income, except to the extent that money buys a certain amount of political influence. But you will have noticed that the left has been far more influential than the right for a long time, and that a lot of the very rich (perhaps most of them) tend to favor government welfare programs, highly progressive taxes, and other things associated with your party.

In any event, big fortunes are (usually) made by people who did something for their money — invented computer software, picked good businesses in which to invest — and so on. They don’t steal their money from anyone. (The same is true of John D. Rockefeller and the other so-called robber barons of the late 1800s and early 1900s, popular mythology to the contrary.) What they really do is make a lot of money from their investments while — and this is important — also creating better jobs and higher incomes for a lot of Americans. It’s a win-win thing. And it’s been going on for more than 200 years.

So, I can’t understand why it’s thought of as “bad” that some people earn large fortunes in the process of contributing to the growth of the country’s economy. The “concentration” of wealth in a fraction of the populace is just something that happens — it’s not part of a plot. And it means that the wealthy are doing something good, for their own benefit and the benefit of a lot of other people, not that they’ve stolen from others or are somehow oppressing them.

I do understand why this theme is popular now, in a time of economic stress and concerted efforts to reduce the size of government. But, as I’ve said before, I don’t think those efforts can be pinned on “the rich,” though some of them are sympathetic and supportive — just as some of them, like Soros, are unsympathetic and opposed. There are millions of taxpayers who are also feeling the pinch, and they are fed up with the inexorable rise of government spending. The push to cut the size and cost of government is about as “grass roots” as anything I’ve seen in my lifetime.

I do think experts can develop more than one field, especially when they can afford to, and weren’t the doctors endorsing camels paid to do so? Probably not your best example.

And it may not be so bad that 25% own 87%, may be the inevitable Darwinian sort out as you suggest, and it’s not ownership I find so objectionable if I felt they paid their fair share.

I agree that it’s possible for someone to be expert in more than one field, but I haven’t yet read any utterances by Buffet or Soros on economic policy that go beyond pushing their political views. Perhaps I’m not paying enough attention to them, but I doubt that they have anything to offer that I don’t get from reading a variety of “real” economists. It’s probably true that the doctors were paid for endorsing Camels, but the analogy holds true: doctors aren’t necessarily experts in all aspects of medicine. I wouldn’t ask a thoracic surgeon for advice about how to deal with allergies, for example. But that’s beside the main point, which is the question of economic policy and whether there’s something “wrong” with a skewed distribution of income and wealth, and whether high-income people are paying a “fair share” of taxes” (given that they’re already paying the lion’s share).  Bear with me to the end, because you’ll find out that my objective is to defend all taxpayers, and to promote growth that benefits all Americans. My defense of high rollers is merely incidental.

My thoughts about “fair share” and “Darwinism” are given below.

Is it not true that real wages/earnings of middle class or those less than or = $250,000/yr have shrunk or remained stagnant over last 30 years while income of top 2-3% (say, over $1,000,000/yr?) has grown exponentially? I’ve certainly seen studies re CEO pay.

The income of households in all quintiles of the income distribution has been rising, with some bumps along the way. This graph covers 1967-2003: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:United_States_Income_Distribution_1967-2003.svg. There’s been no significant change since 2003, as indicated by this Excel spreadsheet from the Census Bureau: http://www.census.gov/compendia/statab/2011/tables/11s0689.xls.
Also, it’s important to keep in mind that people aren’t “stuck” in a particular quintile; there’s a general tendency to move up as one ages, and then to drop down a bit after retiring. For more, see this: http://mjperry.blogspot.com/2008/02/rich-getting-richer-and-poor-are.html.

My thoughts about CEO compensation are given below.

Isn’t the Tea Party focus on cutting government budgets just months after another unneeded/unwarranted huge tax break for the wealthiest a bit disingenuous? There will always be tug between those of us who think wealthy should pay more because they can afford to as either a Judeo/Christian responsibility or just self protection from violence, but…

Although there’s nothing new about organized efforts to cut government spending (it was a main theme of the GOP from the 1920s to the early 1950s), the current Tea Party movement began in February 2009. It had been gaining ground as an anti-spending movement well before the extension of the Bush tax cuts late in 2010.

Anyway, I don’t think of the two things — spending cuts and tax cuts — as contradictory. They are really complementary. If you see them as contradictory because tax cuts can exacerbate deficits, that may be because you don’t want to see the spending cuts. (I don’t know that for sure, it’s just a guess.) I, on the other hand, see tax cuts as putting more pressure on the folks in Washington to make some spending cuts. The serious problem with the looming deficits isn’t so much the mounting pile of government debt and high interest payments (though those are problems). The serious problem is that government spending absorbs resources that could be put to work building the economy through the operation of the market mechanism — which is how this country’s economic progress has been achieved. (Economic “Darwinism” is a matter of offering things that people value in their daily lives and business operations. If you’re good at it, you’ll prosper; if you’re not, you won’t. I can’t think of a fairer system; any alternative rewards people for doing the wrong things or doing them badly. In that respect, corporate welfare is no better than the other kind.)

As you know from our earlier exchange, high-income people already are paying the lion’s share of taxes in this country. (And, surprisingly, more than their peers in the other industrialized nations: http://www.taxfoundation.org/blog/show/27134.html.) I don’t think it has much (or anything) to do with Judeo-Christian ethics or protecting themselves from violence. It’s the law, and governments have a lot of power when it comes to enforcing the law. Some would gladly pay more, which they can do by sending a donation to the U.S. Treasury. But it isn’t their place to speak for all high-income people, which is gross presumption. A mega-millionaire or billionaire who invests his money in new technologies is doing more for working people than a billionaire who sends the same amount of money to D.C.

The U.S. was prosperous resulting in surplus under Clinton, so we couldn’t go back to the higher tax rates of the Clinton years?

The prosperity under Clinton was a continuation of the growth that began with Reagan’s tax cuts and the success of the Fed’s anti-inflationary efforts in the early 1980s. There was a minor recession in 1990-91, but growth had resumed before Clinton took office. The surpluses that he eventually realized had a lot to do with the fact the his spending proclivities were reined in by the GOP-controlled Congress. So, no, I don’t see any magic in the higher tax rates of the Clinton years. The real magic is a combination of reduced government spending and more incentives for people to do things that create wealth for themselves and jobs and higher incomes for others — that is, lower tax rates across the board.

I know that you’d call this “trickle down economics,” but it’s not really. I’m not just trying to defend high-income earners from ill-advised taxation, I’m trying to defend everyone from it. Economic growth requires not only big investments by high rollers but also small investments by “little people.” Why? Because (a) most new jobs are created in smaller businesses (http://www.sba.gov/advocacy/847; http://www.sba.gov/advocacy/7495/8424), and (b) from acorns do mighty oaks grow (think Ford, Microsoft, and the like). And growth benefits working people generally, and everyone who has a spare dollar to invest in a mutual fund (stocks for the risk-takers, bonds for the risk-averse).

Mega millionaires & billionaires continue to make off with a disproportionate share have pitted us against each other.

I’m not sure what you mean when you refer to “disproportionate share.” Let’s take highly paid athletes. The top-100 single-season salaries in baseball (through 2010) range from A-Rod’s $33 million in 2009 to Richie Sexson’s $16 million in 2008. The average major-league player’s salary in 2010 was $3.3 million (http://baseball.about.com/od/newsrumors/a/2010baseballteampayrolls.htm). Are those multi-millionaires making off with a “disproportionate share,” relative to (say) a member of the grounds crew? Or are they simply being paid a requisite amount for their expected contributions to their teams’ bottom lines?

Is the case of CEOs vs. floor sweepers any different? If so, why? In any event, high CEO compensation is mainly a symbolic thing that’s a handy target for griping. Top CEOs don’t make any more than baseball players (http://www.theglobeopinion.com/section/business/executive-compensation), and they’re on the line for the performance of companies that are vastly larger than baseball clubs.

Related posts:
The Causes of Economic Growth
A Short Course in Economics
Addendum to a Short Course in Economics
Enough of “Social Welfare”
The Case of the Purblind Economist
Economic Growth since WWII
The Price of Government
Does the Minimum Wage Increase Unemployment?
The Price of Government Redux
The Mega-Depression
The Real Burden of Government
Toward a Risk-Free Economy
The Rahn Curve at Work
The Illusion of Prosperity and Stability
Society and the State
The “Forthcoming Financial Collapse”
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Inhibits Economic Growth
The Deficit Commission’s Deficit of Understanding
Undermining the Free Society
The Bowles-Simpson Report
The Bowles-Simpson Band-Aid
Build It and They Will Pay
Government vs. Community
The Stagnation Thesis
Government Failure: An Example

Taxing the Rich

UPDATED 03/20/11

The quotation below is the text of a private message I sent to a friend who laments the unequal “distribution” of income and wealth. (I use sneer quotes around “distribution” because the use of the word suggests that there is a pie to be divided; a fallacy that I address later.) The friend likens the United States to corrupt Latin American regimes of yore, where wealth and political power were concentrated in the hands of land owners. He then attributes this mythical situation to Reagan’s “trickle down economics.” Emotion trumps facts, as usual on the left.

I’m sending this for your private consideration, in view of your latest post. I’m not sure what prompted that post, or what it’s based on, but there are a lot of misconceptions about income distribution and tax burdens in the United States. First, income rises across the board; it isn’t just “the rich” who get richer (http://mjperry.blogspot.com/2008/02/rich-getting-richer-and-poor-are.html).Second, unlike Latin America, there is a lot of mobility across income groups; “the rich” are not the same set of people from year to year and decade to decade (http://mjperry.blogspot.com/2007/11/despite-mythology-income-mobility-is.html). Third, most of “the rich” in the U.S. got that way by earning their incomes (http://mjperry.blogspot.com/2008/04/inheritance-is-not-main-driver-of.html), unlike Latin American aristocrats. Fourth, “the rich” already pay the lion’s share of income taxes (http://www.taxfoundation.org/news/show/250.html#Data).

Although most people in the United States deserve what they earn, because they’re not stealing it from other people, I agree that there are a lot of high rollers who earn more than they would if they weren’t granted special privileges by government. The giveaways to the financial industry are a notorious example. But bankers are only the tip of the iceberg, which extends down through many income levels. Not far from the top are members of Congress, who have one of the best self-created pension rackets going. (A cushy, guaranteed, taxpayer-funded pension amounts to a substantial, untaxed bonus.) Further down the ladder, but still worthy of note, are government employees — whether unionized or not — whose low quit-rates attest to the fact that their compensation (which usually includes generous pension benefits) is above what they could earn in the private sector. It is only in the past few years that public-sector employees have begun the feel the effects of tight budgets. Which is to say that they’ve had a free ride for a long time, at taxpayers’ expense.

Bottom line: A high income isn’t necessarily a sign of political corruption or special privileges. Nor is it clear that high-income earners are paying less than their “share.” A good case can be made that they’re paying too much, because it’s high-income earners whose investments fund growth-producing, job-creating technology and business start-ups. What bothers me is people — at all income levels — who are given special privileges by government, which the rest of us pay for in taxes and higher prices for certain goods and services.

UPDATE:

My friend replies:

Thanks for offering your views, but I can’t see how 2% essentially owning 90% is good for the country, nor do I think it will stand.

My response:

I don’t know what you mean by 2% “owning 90%” of the country. It’s true that wealth is concentrated, but that has been true since the birth of the Republic, and it’s to be expected because wealth is strongly (but not perfectly) correlated with income. And except where government grants the kinds of privileges I mentioned earlier, one’s income depends on talent and effort. Further, as I pointed out earlier, income disparities aren’t permanent; there’s plenty of mobility in the U.S., up and down the ladder.

The U.S. isn’t a feudal aristocracy, ripe for revolution because of actual oppression. Some people make it, and some don’t; those who make it (excepting the beneficiaries of government privileges) are able to do so because, in this country, they’re free to reap the fruits of their effort and ability.

Moreover, there’s no fixed “pie” of wealth that’s jealously guarded by a ruling clique. There’s a (usually) growing pie, to which each able person adds as he or she is willing and able. And it belongs to those who produce it — not to “the country.”

If you’re interested in actual facts (as opposed to myths and slogans), you should read the links I sent previously (if you haven’t already) and also this one: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wealth_in_the_United_States.

Social Justice

Despite a recent outburst, the proximate cause of this post is a column of Nicholas Kristof’s (“Equality, a True Soul Food“, The New York Times, January 1, 2011), in which Kristof pleads for less income inequality in the United States. His plea is based, in part, on the premise that persons of low status suffer because they envy persons of higher status (an assertion that’s based on research about monkeys). Don Boudreaux, Tom Maguire, and Max Borders have weighed in with insightful reactions. Will Wilkinson addressed the status-envy issue in 2006 (here and here), and has addressed it more recently (e.g., see this and follow the links therein). The Heritage Foundation offers a useful (if somewhat out-of-date) statistical analysis of income distribution (misleading word) in the U.S. I have written on the subject so many times that I can only refer you to lists of posts (here, here, here, here, and here) that include many relevant ones.

There is no theoretical or factual argument for income redistribution that cannot be met by a superior theoretical or factual argument against it. In the end, the case for (somehow) reducing income inequality turns on an emotional appeal for “social justice,” that is, for reshaping the world in a way that pleases the pleader. As if the pleader — in his or her pure, misguided arrogance — has superior wisdom about how the world should be shaped.

In fact, “social justice” usually (but not always) is code for redistributing income, either directly (through the taxing and spending power of government) or indirectly (through the power of government to require favoritism toward certain groups of persons). Make no mistake, there is no justice in “social justice,” which is nothing more than a euphemism for coercion by the state.

Social justice is possible only where there is a true society, not the bogus “society”  or “community” to which bleeding hearts and statists refer when they mean the United States or most of its political subdivisions — which have become nothing more than geopolitical prisons.

A true society or community is one in which persons are bound by more than merely residing in the same nation, state, city, or other geographic entity. A true society is one whose members voluntarily commit acts of kindness and charity toward one another, as part of the social “bargain” that is known as the Golden Rule.

That “bargain” amounts to a delicate balance of self-interested and voluntarily beneficial behavior. The self-interested aspect of behavior is mutual forbearance — leaving others alone so that they will leave you alone. The voluntarily beneficial aspect is the commission of acts of kindness and charity. It is the latter that enables the former, because acts of kindness and charity help to build a true feeling of community by creating an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust.

Purveyors of “social justice” say that the voluntary arrangements of true communities are inadequate for the purpose of meeting this or that desideratum. Whence the desiderata? From the preconceptions of the purveyors of “social justice,” of course. They would substitute their “wisdom” for the wisdom that it embedded in voluntary social and economic arrangements. And they usually succeed because their arrogance incorporates a good measure of power-lust.

In sum, true social justice  is possible only in a voluntary community that is founded on mutual forbearance, respect, and trust. It cannot be found in the kind of forcible leveling that is favored by advocates of “social justice.” There is nothing just about coercion.

Related posts:
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
The Interest-Group Paradox
Parsing Political Philosophy
Is Statism Inevitable?
Inventing “Liberalism”
Law and Liberty
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
An Encounter with a Marxist
Our Enemy, the State
The Golden Rule and the State
A Not-So-Fine Whine

Fascism with a “Friendly” Face

This is the core meaning of fascism:

Fascism is a system in which the government leaves nominal ownership of the means of production in the hands of private individuals but exercises control by means of regulatory legislation and reaps most of the profit by means of heavy taxation. In effect, fascism is simply a more subtle form of government ownership than is socialism.

A fascistic government  — even a totalitarian one — will try to secure broad political support for itself. Scapegoating is a common technique for developing political support. Scapegoating, when successful, fosters the belief that the country’s economic and/or social problems — the ones that the fascistic regime promises to cure — are due to the actions of particular, identifiable groups of citizens. Another common technique is the suppression of dissent, which stifles critical commentary while imparting to the timid masses a lesson in the value of submissiveness to the regime.

Successful scapegoating serves two purposes. First, it turns public scrutiny away from the regime’s mistakes and misdeeds and toward the supposed misdeeds of the scapegoated groups. Second, scapegoating helps to build public support for the regime by identifying it as a force for good, as opposed to the scapegoated groups, which are painted as sources of evil.

Fascism, despite its prevailing image in the popular mind, need not come about through the efforts of black- or brown-shirted thugs. If you will re-read the opening definition of fascism, it should remind you of the present state of affairs in the United States, given that the federal government has assumed de facto control of two leading industries — financial services and automobile manufacturing — the first of which is central to the operations of America’s businesses.*

How did the United States get to this point? Through the “democratic” process, that’s how — without a shot, without a coup, without a foaming-at-the-mouth dictator. The citizens of the United States — enough of them, anyway — have, over the past eight decades, elected the members of Congress and the presidents (and, indirectly, their judicial appointees) who have brought us to our present state. The grinning FDR was a fascist; the smiling Obama is acting like one (see first footnote). Thus “Fascism with a ‘Friendly’ Face” (alternative title: “Bread and Circuses Redux“).

I now turn to the unfriendly face of fascism, that is, to scapegoating and the suppression of dissent. There was scapegoating a-plenty under FDR, as exemplified by his attacks on “economic royalists.” According to FDR, among many other rabble-rousers of the time, “the rich” were to blame for the Depression and were standing in the way of recovery. That FDR’s demonization of “the rich” and his schemes for centralizing power in Washington were the real obstacles to recovery is a fact that eluded his second-rate mind and which still eludes most Americans (even  a Nobel laureate). (For much more, you should buy and read FDR’s Folly: How Roosevelt and His New Deal Prolonged the Great Depression, which I own and have read critically. It’s repetitive and a somewhat dumbed-down, but generally on the mark.)

We are seeing, under Obama, a renewal of scapegoating. It is evident in his plans to soak “the rich,” which would (among other things) lead to income redistribution. As if the the recession could be cured by raising taxes on the very group that is most responsible for economic growth. As if very high incomes were the result of some kind of conspiracy and not symptomatic of a dynamic, growing economy. (For more about income inequality, see this, this, this, this, this, this, and this.) Scapegoating also is evident in Obama’s attack on hedge-fund managers who refused (how dare they!) to roll over and allow the holders of Chrysler bonds to suffer for the benefit of the UAW, to which Chrysler owes its (hoped for) demise. (One hedge-fund manager’s brisk and appropriate response to Obama’s attack is here.)

Then there is Obama’s decision to join the Left’s campaign to pin the “torturer” label on the Bush administration, thereby legitimating that campaign. We might yet witness the unprecedented spectacle of an incoming U.S. administration trying members of the previous administration for what amount to political “crimes” against Leftist sensibilities.

Obama’s ascendancy, though achieved by a fairly narrow popular-vote margin, has emboldened the Left (in and out of government) in other efforts to scapegoat conservatives and suppress conservative views; viz.:

  • this report from the Department of Homeland Security (especially the footnote on page 2) and related commentary (e.g., here, here, here, and here), all reminiscent of 1964, when Barry Goldwater was vilified (successfully) as an extremist because he stood against the concentration of power in Washington;
  • denunciations of the “tea party” movement (e.g. here and here);
  • efforts by universities and public officials to suppress dissent (e.g., here, here, here, and here), most notably Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s proposal to give the president authority to shut down the internet; and

Regarding the suppression of dissent, it is noteworthy that Obama’s has tagged Cass Sunstein (a Chicago crony) to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the White House. (See this article for more about the likely direction of OIRA under Sunstein.) My biggest concern about Sunstein, who figures to be a strong influence on Obama, is his embrace of the oxymoronical thing known as “libertarian paternalism.” (For an exposition of its flaws, see this post and its predecessors, linked therein.)

“Libertarian paternalism” is nothing more than a dressed-up version of paternalism, in which the government is used to “nudge” people toward making the kinds of decisions that Sunstein and his ilk would make. That is to say, Sunstein (like too many other bright individuals) likes to believe that he knows what’s best for others. (That conceit is demolished in the posts mentioned at the end of the preceding paragraph and in these posts by an avowed utilitarian.)

“Libertarian paternalism” may seem innocuous, but there’s more to it than a bit of “nudging” (hah!) by the one-ton gorilla in the room (i.e., the federal government). Perhaps the most frightening item on Sunstein’s paternalistic agenda ties into Sen. Rockefeller’s proposal to give the president the power to shut down the internet — which amounts to the power to control the content of the internet. And make no mistake about it, Sunstein would like to control the content of the internet — for our own good, of course. I refer specifically to Sunstein’s “The Future of Free Speech,” in which he advances several policy proposals, including these:

4. . . . [T]he government might impose “must carry” rules on the most popular Websites, designed to ensure more exposure to substantive questions. Under such a program, viewers of especially popular sites would see an icon for sites that deal with substantive issues in a serious way. They would not be required to click on them. But it is reasonable to expect that many viewers would do so, if only to satisfy their curiosity. The result would be to create a kind of Internet sidewalk, promoting some of the purposes of the public forum doctrine. Ideally, those who create Websites might move in this direction on their own. If they do not, government should explore possibilities of imposing requirements of this kind, making sure that no program draws invidious lines in selecting the sites whose icons will be favoured. Perhaps a lottery system of some kind could be used to reduce this risk.

5. The government might impose “must carry” rules on highly partisan Websites, designed to ensure that viewers learn about sites containing opposing views. This policy would be designed to make it less likely for people to simply hear echoes of their own voices. Of course, many people would not click on the icons of sites whose views seem objectionable; but some people would, and in that sense the system would not operate so differently from general interest intermediaries and public forums. Here too the ideal situation would be voluntary action. But if this proves impossible, it is worth considering regulatory alternatives. [Emphasis added.]

A Left-libertarian defends Sunstein’s foray into thought control, concluding that

Sunstein once thought some profoundly dumb policies might be worth considering, but realized years ago he was wrong about that… The idea was a tentative, speculative suggestion he now condemns in pretty strong terms.

Alternatively, in the face of severe criticism of his immodest proposal, Sunstein merely went underground, to await an opportunity to revive his proposal. I somehow doubt that Sunstein, as a confirmed paternalist, truly abandoned it. The proposal certainly was not off-the-cuff, running to 11 longish web pages.  Now, judging by the bulleted list above, the time is right for a revival of Sunstein’s proposal. And there he is, heading the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. The powers of that office supposedly are constrained by the executive order that established it. But it is evident that the Obama adminstration isn’t bothered by legal niceties when it comes to the exercise of power. Only a few pen strokes stand between Obama and a new, sweeping executive order, the unconstitutionality of which would be of no import to our latter-day FDR.

Where will it all end? As I argue here, the United States already has descended into statism. The further descent into ingrained fascism is but a fine-tuning exercise for the vast, Left-wing alliance, which consists of public-school “educators,” liberal-arts academics, and their sycophantic students; Hollywood and New York celebrities and their hangers-on; “artists” and “intellectual workers” of most stripes; well-educated, upper-income, professionals who live in and around major metropolitan areas; and hordes of politicians (local, State, and national), who foster and benefit from the prejudices of the alliance. This broad alliance patronizes idealistic twenty-somethings, blacks, Latins, and labor-union members — the four groups from which its favored political candidates draw decisive support at the polls.

The Leftist alliance scorns America and its traditional (but largely abandoned) values of personal responsibility and respect for the persons and property of others. The alliance exalts, instead, the politics of entitlement and envy, of class, ethnic, racial, and gender conflict. As a result, the alliance has succeeded in demolishing the long-standing consensus that the main constitutional functions of the federal government are “to establish Justice, provide for the common defence,” and ensure the free movement of goods and persons among the States.**

Where will it all end? Unless we are roused from our Leftist idyll by some-one or some-thing, it will end in an Orwellian nightmare. The state will control our lives, in minute detail, from conception (and the prevention thereof) to death (and the means thereof).
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* For some views about our descent into fascism (even where it isn’t called that), see these posts of mine:
Things to Come
Reclaiming Liberty Throughout the Land
Are We All Fascists Now?

See  also these posts and articles by other writers:
Fundamentally Different
Obama the Planner
Obama: The Grand Strategy
The Death of Democratic Capitalism?
Tarred by TARP
Elizabeth Warren’s Holy Crusade
Pay Limits May Apply to Toxic-Asset Relief Program, Report Says
Environmentalists Are Funny. Right?
EPA’s Endangerment Finding
EPA Says Greenhouse Gases are Threat to Public

** The preamble to the Constitution also mentions “insur[ing] domestic Tranquillity,” “provid[ing] for the general Welfare,” and “secur[ing] the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” These injunctions — aside from a few specific, textual grants of power for dealing with insurrections — merely reflect the Framers’ hopes for the nation’s future under the auspices of the new Constitution.