With all the talk of America’s forgotten middle class, it’s worth taking time as we begin a new year to consider that the country’s seeming obsession with wealth and inequality may instead be turning the U. S. into a country with only two classes: the governed and the governing.
The aim of the 100-year old Progressive movement in America has purportedly been a more just and humane society in which everyone’s needs are taken care of by government, no one goes hungry or without health care because the state provides for everyone, and everyone is equal in almost every way – except, of course, for the ruling class of expert elites, who will always be more equal than the rest of us.
The goal of conservatives and libertarians, on the other hand, is a more just society in which individuals make their own decisions about what is best for themselves and their families, resources are allocated more efficiently because most people actually pay for what they consume, and everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed or to fail based upon his or her own talents, ambition, and work ethic.
A pragmatist will concede that a certain amount of inequality will always exist under both worldviews, as talent, ambition, work ethic, political connections – and just plain luck – are not distributed evenly or equally among the general population.
For every Michael Jordan, for example, are a thousand or a million kids who never make it off the playground; for every Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, or Steve Balmer are a bunch of programmers writing code in anonymity; for every Oprah Winfrey are a host of local television news readers and late-night radio disc jockeys; and for every Steven King or J. K. Rowling are a million bloggers seeking a following.
A market-based system that attempts to maximize individual liberty and opportunity accepts inequality of results as inevitable and recognizes that, for all its perceived unfairness, maximizing individual liberty also maximizes human happiness. Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey, Steven King, and J. K. Rowling have brought joy to millions – if not billions – of people worldwide while generating ancillary jobs and revenue in the sports, television, publishing, movie, and toy industries, among everyone from ticket-takers to executive suites, as well as inspiring others to attempt to achieve some comparable degree of success.
Progressivism sees this as unfair and seeks redistribution of wealth by taxing those who’ve succeeded financially and subsidizing those who haven’t. But as one hundred years of a “progressive” income tax, over eighty years of alphabet administrative agencies, and fifty years of an unsuccessful “war” on poverty have demonstrated, the unfortunate result is not equality in any meaningful sense but instead an increasingly polarized population. More people have civilian government jobs and more people receive public assistance than ever, yet the nation is not demonstrably better off either economically or spiritually.
The sad truth is that no amount of wealth redistribution is likely to create the next Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, J. K. Rowling, or Michael Jordan, no matter how much we wish it were so. If that were true, then every lottery winner would go on to fame and creative success instead of disappearing into obscurity or winding up in bankruptcy.
In one important sense, however, progressivism has indeed reshaped society. Primarily through actuarially unsound defined-benefit pension systems with health care benefits and compounded cost of living adjustments, it has created a new privileged class of government employees and former employees who have lifelong claims on the resources of the rest of the population. Part of the population must work longer and harder so that others may retire from working sooner.
Most people would likely not begrudge such a system for citizen-soldiers – particularly those who have been seriously injured while serving their country – but it is difficult to understand why those who hold essentially civilian jobs with little or no distinction should be so privileged.
Real-life examples include the public school teachers whose graduates can neither read nor write but who were promoted into administrative positions their last three years so that their pensions would exceed the salaries they received during most of their careers; the cops who checked in at the station in the morning, then spent the rest of the day snoozing in the local movie theater; the third guy on the garbage truck who rode shotgun and read the paper while another drove the truck and the third guy picked up the garbage before the whole crew drove under a viaduct for an afternoon nap before returning the truck to the depot. That’s not service; it’s taking unfair advantage.
A society in which growth may be a thing of the past can no longer tolerate such excesses, waste, and abuse. But the threat is not merely financial; it is moral and structural as well. For privileged treatment for a fortunate few first undermines initiative and promotes apathy, then lethargy; in the end it generates envy, then resentment, then anger, which has ways of boiling over.
As Abraham Lincoln famously observed in his Gettysburg address, a society cannot exist half slave and half free. Nor can it exist half productive and half parasitic. As the nation begins a new calendar year, it is worth taking the time to ponder how Lincoln’s words may still ring true today.