In Defense of the 1%

“Liberalism,” its adherents claim, is about things like “fairness” and “social justice.” Where “fairness” and “social justice” are lacking — as they usually are in the “liberal” worldview — the state must intervene and penalize the “privileged” so that the “less privileged” may enjoy “fairness” and “social justice.” (I call it blaming the blameless.) This kind of retributive governance cannot stand logical or empirical scrutiny, but it pleases the masses and feeds the power-lust of “liberal” politicians.

Who are the “privileged”? These days they are those who have (temporarily, at least) scaled the  heights of the income distribution. They are the so-called 1%, who (in the “liberal” and left-libertarian view) are there because they are able to “game the system” better than the 99%. Will Wilkinson has a good answer to that allegation:

I think anti-1% rhetoric is misguided and perhaps politically self-defeating. By failing to distinguish between those who became wealthy primarily by creating wealth and those who became wealthy by appropriating wealth, 1%-er/anti-oligarchy language implicitly sets itself in opposition to the kind of inventive, productive people many of us nobly aspire to become. As Kinsley says, a lot of folks really resent this, and they’re not wrong.

Making more money than 99% of one’s countrymen is, by itself, no more morally objectionable than scoring in the 99th percentile of the SAT. Indeed, generally, it’s much more morally praiseworthy; creating wealth benefits people other than oneself. Of course, some people cheat on the SAT. Cheating is wrong. But high-scorers generally aren’t screwing anyone over. Likewise, some people do get rich by cheating and screwing people over. But most people who get rich do it playing by the rules. It’s a mistake to base a protest movement on the refusal to acknowledge this….

If we’re all embedded in a fundamentally unjust, exploitative global economic structure, it’s hard to see why the American 1% should be especially salient. Why not the global 1%, or the global 10 or 20%, which would include pretty much the whole American population. If it is morally imperative to confiscate exceptional wealth and use it to meet human needs, then it is imperative to confiscate most of the wealth in all wealthy countries, not just the wealth of the wealthiest of the wealthy, and transfer it to the world‘s poor, not to the relatively well-to-do poor of the wealthiest countries.

If it’s not possible to bring in $600,000 in a year without therefore being guilty of complicity in a exploitative global system, which invalidates one’s moral claim to one’s income, it’s probably not possible to bring in an untainted, secure $60,000 either.

Of course, most complaints about the American 1% are not grounded on the view that the global political economy is a comprehensive web of exploitation. It’s based on the supposition that the domestic 1% is guilty of something or other the domestic 10 or 30 or 50% isn’t, and therefore deserves to be a target of scorn in a way the 10 or 30 or 50% does not. But, however you slice it, it’s going to be true that a lot of people in the top 1% got there in pretty much the same way a lot of people in the top 30 or 50% got there. If there’s nothing wrong with a way of making money at the 50th percentile, there’s nothing wrong with it at the 99th. And if there’s something wrong with it at the 99th, there’s something wrong with at the 50th. The unwillingness to identify specific mechanisms of unjust income acquisition, and the insistence on treating income-earners above a arbitrary cut-off point as a unified class deserving special contempt, strike me as symptoms of intellectually laziness and a less than thoroughgoing interest in justice.

There is a further, crucial criticism of the anti-1% mentality. The 1%, for the most part, consists of individuals who are smart and ambitious enough to do quite well without the unspecified mechanisms that supposedly favor them. Even with a hypothetically appealing but practically unattainable “level playing field,” I would not expect the composition of the 1% to change markedly.

In any event, there will always be a 1% of one kind or another, the left’s penchant for Nirvana fallacies to the contrary. The real-world choice is not between equality and inequality, it is between liberty and tyranny. Liberty allows a 1% consisting of an (ever-changing) economic “elite”; tyranny allows a 1% consisting of a tyrant’s henchmen and courtiers. The futile flight from economic inequality has delivered America into the hands of rabble-rousing petty tyrants — “soft” despots, if you will — who have badly damaged our economic and social liberties without quite extinguishing them.

These rabble-rousers — who are exemplified by the Roosevelts, Woodrow Wilson, LBJ, and BHO — have been enabled by the decline of constitutional republicanism and the rise of interest-group democracy. The rabble-rousers have exploited the masses’ envy and fear. But, unbeknownst to the masses, the rabble-rousers have failed to deliver prosperity and have instead delivered impoverishment.* Why? Because the rabble-rousers’ essential program is to penalize the productive through progressive taxation, affirmative action, and restrictive regulations. But the rabble-rousers seem not to know or care that their schemes also penalize the less-productive and unproductive by hindering economic growth and job creation.

If anything, the 1% is to be applauded for having succeeded against great odds. And for delivering value.

Related posts:
The Causes of Economic Growth
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
A Short Course in Economics
Fascism with a “Friendly” Face
Democracy and Liberty
The Interest-Group Paradox
Addendum to a Short Course in Economics
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Fascism and the Future of America
The Indivisibility of Economic and Social Liberty
The Constitution: Original Meaning, Corruption, and Restoration
Negative Rights
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
The Devolution of American Politics from Wisdom to Opportunism
The Near-Victory of Communism
Tocqueville’s Prescience
Accountants of the Soul
Invoking Hitler
Rawls Meets Bentham
The Left
Enough of “Social Welfare”
A True Flat Tax
The Case of the Purblind Economist
Youthful Wisdom
The Divine Right of the Majority
Our Enemy, the State
Social Justice
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

* For more about the impoverishing effects of government, see the preceding post and follow the links at the bottom of that post.