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 The Heritage Foundation offers a useful (if somewhat out-of-date) statistical analysis of income distribution (misleading word) in the U.S. I have written on the subject so many times that I can only refer you to lists of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.
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
The Interest-Group Paradox
Parsing Political Philosophy
Is Statism Inevitable?
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