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August 19, 2013 11:10 AM The Real Immorality of Inequality

By Harold Pollack

Last month, John Goodman excoriated a Wonkblog piece I wrote, which had criticized Greg Mankiw’s defense of the 1%. I argued that Mankiw fails to appreciate what we all owe each other, given our differing roles and resources in a prosperous, interconnected society. I was caring for my dad at the time, and so didn’t have an opportunity to post a proper answer.

You get a flavor of Goodman’s argument from this passage:

Pollack even individualizes his argument by describing help he got from a tow truck driver at road side. Presumably, the tow truck driver got paid. So there was a mutually beneficial exchange ― the kind of exchange that is at the heart of the free enterprise system. But Pollack thinks he owes the tow truck driver something more:
My taxes help provide his child with subsidized lunches and preschool. I help provide his family with health insurance. That’s as it should be. I still get a very good deal. He had my back. I should have his.
But wait a minute. What exactly does he owe the tow truck driver? Does he owe more or less than he owes people living on $1 a day? Or people living on $2 a day? Or…?
If the tow truck driver has a moral claim against Pollack, we never learn what it is….
In some ways this is all very surprising. After all, the 20th century was the century of collectivism. It was the century of communism, socialism, national socialism (fascism) and the welfare state. Each and every one of these isms was devoted to taking from some and giving to others. After all these years and all that misery you would think that someone, somewhere would have perfected an argument for forcible redistribution of income. And yet what we find today at the leftwing blogs is truly pitiful.

No doubt Goodman would find this liberal fascist perspective pitiful, too.

In a world where there is so much wealth, so many resources to feed everyone, it is unfathomable that there are so many hungry children, that there are so many children without an education, so many poor persons…
Look, you can’t speak of poverty without having experience with the poor. You can’t speak of poverty in the abstract: that doesn’t exist. Poverty is the flesh of the poor Jesus, in that child who is hungry, in the one who is sick, in those unjust social structures…

I confess that my tow-truck Samaritan story–indeed my entire blog post–failed to replicate A theory of justice or to delineate a framework of just income distribution in the United States or across the globe. My basic point remains clear enough: A market-generated distribution can easily fail, at some obvious human level, to meet our obligations to many people we count on every day. Equating democratically-derived structures of progressive taxation with Soviet-style practices is a little crazy, particularly when what’s being argued right now amounts to whether or not we should enact some mild increases in the top tax rates.

Goodman seems to have lumped together Franklin Roosevelt, Barack Obama, Clement Attlee, Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and (apparently) Pope Francis into the same opposing category. His crude blog post thus provides an ironic foundation from which to argue that leftwing blogs lack nuance in arguments regarding income redistribution.

As I mentioned in the (very unfortunate) comment thread to Goodman’s piece, I am well-acquainted with the criminal nature of the regimes he mentioned. I grow up in a town that included conspicuous numbers of Holocaust survivors and refugees from the Soviet Union. Our JCC held an elegantly bound memorial notebook, in which were inscribed many names of relatives lost to Hitler. These were the aunts, uncles, and grandparents of my classmates and friends. I knew a local poet, Israel Emiot, who walked with a limp due to injuries he had suffered in a Soviet work camp.

For 45 years, 300,000 American GIs provided a thin green line protecting Western European democracies from the Soviet Union. Our troops weren’t there to preserve low capital gains tax rates, or to hold back the menace of subsidized day care, universal health care, or school lunch programs. They were there to defend the structures of constitutional democracy, the rule of law, respect for individual rights, freedom of speech and assembly, protections against racial and ethnic discrimination, respect for religious and cultural pluralism.

Societies with such democratic norms and structures can make different economic choices. Some wealthy democracies have large public sectors. Some implement stronger redistributive fiscal policies than others. Societies that lack such democratic structures make different economic choices, too. Some profess to follow market models. Others prefer the rhetoric of state socialism. The specific technocratic details of fiscal policy prove far less important than the lack of democratic accountability, racial, ethnic, and religious antagonism enacted in law, authoritarian government that disrespects individual liberties.

Nordic social democracies are much more free, more admirable, more free and stable societies than were market-oriented right-wing dictatorships such as (say) Pinochet’s Chile. At least I believe so. I hope Mr. Goodman agrees with me.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

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Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.

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