Trent is standing astride the corpse of statist socialism, metaphorically beating his chest, and a lot of our commenters seem to agree with him.
I think his joy is premature (and somewhat misplaced); so what I want to do is defend redistributive liberalism here. There are two flavors of redistribution. One redistributes income and wealth; usually through transfer payments, social programs, or other kinds of infrastructure paid for disproportionately by the well-off and used by all. The other is defensive; it means to limit the concentrations of wealth and power.
It is about keeping those who have from using what they have to take from those who don’t.
I believe these are important for two reasons.
One is a matter of morality, aesthetics, essentially of taste, and as we all know, de gustibus, non disputandum est (there’s no accounting for taste). I prefer to live in a world where the conditions of the poor are meliorated. I think it’s just and good. The response to that is ‘well, spend your own money!’, and right now I’m not going to dispute that (although I believe it’s quite disputable).
The other is very practical and cold-hearted, and is something I hope to convince you to take seriously; to have the kind of political organization we have…where we grant legitimacy to an abstract body of laws and procedure…there needs to be a rough equality of power.
There will never be a true equality of power; every effort to make it so has collapsed into madness (The Terror, Pol Pot). But one unique feature of the American system – and one of the keys to it’s greatness is the ability of the small to stand up to the strong. This is important for many reasons; one of the most important is that it ties the small and powerless to the system with ties of legitimacy.
My correspondence with Bill, from Rational Expectations, helped get this started.
Here are a few quotes from his emails to me:
First, what’s the problem with wealth concentration? Bill Gates didn’t get rich by making me or any other of his customers worse off.
I think there’s a huge difference between an agricultural society in which a handful of families own all the land and everyone else is a peasant on the one hand and a society in which there’s significant mobility *within* the income distribution. The key is whether people have access to education and credit markets and are free to enter into any business or occupation of their choosing.
And I started realizing that he feels the way a lot of the people who read and comment on this blog (and not a few of those who write for it) do.
I feel differently.
As noted above, my feelings aren’t based entirely – or even largely – on some deep moral values. They are based on a look at the founding principles of this country, and on what people have discussed and believe that makes a polity work.
Jefferson put it well:
“There is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents… There is also an artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents; for with these it would belong to the first class… The artificial aristocracy is a mischievous ingredient in government, and provision should be made to prevent its ascendency.” –Thomas Jefferson to John Adams
“With the laborers of England generally, does not the moral coercion of want subject their will as despotically to that of their employer, as the physical constraint does the soldier, the seaman, or the slave?” –Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper
“I do not believe with the Rochefoucaults and the Montaignes that fourteen out of fifteen men are rogues. I believe a great abatement from that proportion may be made in favor of general honesty. But I have always found that rogues would be uppermost, and I do not know that the proportion is too strong for the higher orders and for those who, rising above the swinish multitude, always contrive to nestle themselves into the places of power and profit. These rogues set out with stealing the people’s good opinion, and then steal from them the right of withdrawing it, by contriving laws and associations against the power of the people themselves.” –Thomas Jefferson to Mann Page
And much of the Federalist Papers is about the fear that an aristocracy of wealth hand power would rise up and destroy the fragile republic.
(and that the mobs would vote themselves wealth and power, to be sure)
There is a critical level of diffusion of power that has made the American model work. Not too diffuse, for there we get the demos, and ultimately the mob; and not too concentrated, for there we begin to stratify as those with privilege erect barriers to make sure that they can keep it.
My biggest concern is that we are near a tipping point where that delicate balance will be at risk. I, and others like me, want to shove the pendulum back the other way.
Like some, Mitch Ratcliffe as an example, I’m looking for a way to pull power away from the corporate and financial elites without handing it to the political/administrative elites. I don’t want a choice between Dickens’ and Orwell’s Londons – between Oliver Twist and 1984.
I intend to make another one. If I can’t find it, I’ll help create it.