There appeared on the gossip website Gawker.com recently a profane and ignorant article titled “Do ‘The Good Rich’ Exist?” The substance of the piece is exactly what one might expect from such a title, beginning with a lament that wealth -- and wealthy people -- even exist:
We live in a world in which wealth is distributed in a wildly unequal way. A tiny few have billions of dollars, while many more have nothing.
Notice the perverse upending of reality in this formulation: Wealth is not made, it is distributed, as though it already and perpetually existed -- thus are the achievements of individual men and women wiped out in a sentence.
And how convenient this rearrangement is for the lover of government, for once you accept the notion that wealth is not created but merely “distributed,” you have gone a long way towards giving some pencil-necked bureaucrat the right to “distribute” (read: confiscate) your wealth, and the wealth of everybody else. The whole argument, though steeped in self-righteous moralizing, is nothing more than a transparent rationalization for state-sanctioned robbery.
To be sure, the author of this screed, one Hamilton Nolan, takes pains to assure us that his is not meant to be an anti-rich polemic; he even acknowledges that many ultra-wealthy people contribute large sums to charitable causes. He then pointedly asks whether or not even laudable philanthropy really purges the wealthy from the taint of their riches: “The purpose of this discussion is not to impugn the character of billionaires,” he writes. “It is to ask: What is the cost to society of the perception that we should be grateful to these wealthy men for their generosity?”
Apparently in Nolan’s warped view, since the people are really the collective owners of a rich man’s property, instead of us being grateful to him for giving any of it away, it is he who should be grateful to us for allowing him to keep any. Mao could not be more proud if he authored this argument himself.
Nolan finds a useful idiot in the person of Warren Buffett, a self-hating rich man who is often happy to provide fodder for those who believe that wealth is not really earned. Notes Nolan:
Warren Buffett himself has attributed most of his success to the society he lives in—its governmental protections, its rule of law, its fair and transparent markets, its educational system, and so on.
This is the type of false and facile modesty that many a billionaire has used in an attempt to shield himself from the jackals of statism. But think how hollow the argument: If society’s laws and regulations were really responsible for Buffett’s wealth, then we would all be so wealthy, since we have all enjoyed the same luxuries. Of course, this is nonsense -- in Buffet’s case, as in all such cases, wealth accumulation resulted from an extraordinary combination of, yes, luck, but also character fueled by fierceness, talent, and intellect. Nolan doesn't buy this argument, however:
The wise rich (and anyone realistic about the role of chance in the outcomes of all of our lives) recognize that personal talent is but one minor ingredient of vast success. If society is responsible for the vast majority of the success of the rich, then returning the vast majority of that wealth back to society is the least that the rich can do.
Nolan wants us to see individual wealth accumulation as both an economic and a moral problem. “What are the opportunity costs to society,” he writes, “of having billions of dollars concentrated in the hands of a single person?” He then gives what he thinks is a clever thought experiment that demonstrates the massive injustice that is capitalism:
Imagine if money were food… The wealthy man has silo after silo full of grain. Meanwhile, thousands of people are poor and starving. "I built up these vast stores of food over my career as a trader. Although I could never eat all of the food they hold, it gives me great personal satisfaction to gaze upon them and reflect on my own success. But don't worry," says the rich man, "upon my death, all of my food holdings will be distributed to the poor." The people cheer his generosity. The rich man lives fifty more years. The poor starve to death each winter.
Yes, let’s pretend one thing is actually something else entirely in order to justify your desire to steal.
And what of these poor folk, whom the author implicitly imbues with a moral rectitude verging on holiness by mere virtue of their poverty? Does the author, or any statist, really think these people, should they become wealthy overnight, would be so saintly as to voluntarily “distribute’ their new-found riches to their former compatriots in want? Of course not. They would seek to keep and increase what is theirs, as all humans everywhere have always done.
A more honest and appropriate accounting of the sentiments expressed in Nolan’s vile screed -- and all like it -- would say plainly:
I am jealous of those who are more successful than I; the government should punish them for me and hand over their possessions to me.
How refreshing it would be to hear such an open admission of insecurity and greed from a statist. But don’t hold your breath.