Sunday, July 1, 2007

The Morality of Inequality

Let's begin with a statement that is widely accepted as true: it is immoral to use violence against innocent and peaceful individuals to accomplish one's aims.

With that in mind, consider this headline from USA Today: "Dems Call for Ending Tax Cuts for Rich." Hillary Clinton "criticized [President] Bush for what she called his indifference to income inequality." John Edwards "has made economic disparity a focus of his candidacy....He said racism 'goes through every single part of American life' and is visible in inequality in health care, education, and income."

Clearly, Clinton and Edwards share another basic premise: income inequality is morally unacceptable. They are ready and willing to use the tax code to seize the income of those who earn it and hand it over to someone they believe needs it more. In their view, the needs of the community trump the rights of the individual.

This may be an appealing political message, especially to those who need help. But there are dangerous long-term consequences for all members of society in such a policy.

Reducing inequality in income requires increasing inequality in political power. Political inequality is far more harmful than economic inequality. In fact, you could argue economic inequality is not harmful at all.

Economic inequality is the result of talent, hard work, or just plain luck. Michael Jordan is rich because he is naturally talented. Sam Walton was rich because he worked hard. A lottery winner is rich because he was lucky. In all three cases, the result is clearly an economic inequality. But who has been harmed? Were people forced to buy Bulls tickets? Were people forced to shop at Wal-Mart? Were people forced to buy lottery tickets? The answer is no. In all three cases, economic inequality is the result of peaceful, voluntary, and mutually beneficial behavior. There is absolutely nothing immoral here.

Contrast that conclusion with what happens under political inequality.

Political inequality is the result of deliberate social design, not voluntary behavior. It is what happens when one group of people has enough power to force another group of people to submit to its will. Political inequality punishes those who do not cooperate. If you doubt this, try disobeying the order of even a minor bureaucrat. First, you will get a warning. Second, you will get a fine. Ignore the fine, and the state will attempt to confiscate your property. Resist, and the state will arrest you.

The demand to obey is bad enough, but there is something even more sinister. When we create class differentials in political power, an enforcer and an enforcee, it does not matter if the enforcer is, for a time, benevolent. Eventually, someone less benevolent seizes the political advantage and uses the political differential in power for his own self-interest.

Consider the facts of political inequality: it grants some people special power over the lives, labor and property of others; it demands obedience; it punishes those who refuse; it opens the door to injustice and corrupt political behavior. If anything can be called immoral, this must be.

We would not tolerate a modern politician who called for taxing Protestants at one rate, Catholics at twice that rate, and Jews at three times that rate, as the English tax code did in 1691. We now recognize that such a tax policy is arbitrary, unfair, and immoral.

Demanding that one group of citizens -- no longer identified by religion, but now identified by income -- pay rates at two or three times the rate of the rest of the population is no different. It is morally indefensible.

No comments: