The Right Opinion

The Redistributionist Behemoth

By George Will · Jan. 8, 2012

WASHINGTON – Liberals have a rendezvous with regret. Their largest achievement is today’s redistributionist government. But such government is inherently regressive: It tends to distribute power and money to the strong, including itself.

Government becomes big by having big ambitions for supplanting markets as society’s primary allocator of wealth and opportunity. Therefore it becomes a magnet for factions muscular enough, in money or numbers or both, to bend government to their advantage.

The left’s centuries-old mission is to increase social harmony by decreasing antagonisms arising from disparities of wealth – to decrease inequality by increasing government’s redistributive activities. Such government constantly expands under the unending, indeed intensifying, pressures to correct what it disapproves of – the distribution of wealth produced by consensual market activities. But as government presumes to dictate the correct distribution of social rewards, the maelstrom of contemporary politics demonstrates that social strife, not solidarity, is generated by government transfer payments to preferred groups.

This includes generational strife. Most transfer payments redistribute wealth from workers to nonworkers in the form of pensions and medical care for retirees. The welfare state’s primary purpose is to subsidize the last years of Americans' lives, and the elderly are, after a lifetime of accumulation, better off than most Americans: In 2009, the net worth of households headed by adults ages 65 and older was a record 47 times that of households headed by adults under the age of 35 – a wealth gap that doubled just since 2005.

The equalizing effects of redistributive transfer payments is less today than in 1979, when households in the lowest income quintile received 54 percent of such payments. In 2007, they received 36 percent.

Because Social Security and Medicare are not means-tested, the share of transfer payments going to middle- and upper-income households tends to increase, for several reasons. The retirement age is essentially fixed, but people are living longer. And because the welfare state is so good to them, the elderly are unusually diligent voters, and are especially apt to vote on the basis of protecting their benefits.

Beyond transfer payments, redistributionist government is itself governed by the law of dispersed costs and concentrated benefits: For example, sugar import quotas confer substantial wealth on a small cohort of producers already wealthy enough to work the political levers of redistributive government. The increased cost of sugar substantially penalizes consumers as a group, but not so noticeably that individuals protest.

The tax code, government’s favorite instrument for distributing wealth to favored factions, has been tweaked about 4,500 times in 10 years. Generally, the beneficiaries of these changes are interests sufficiently strong and sophisticated to practice rent-seeking.

Not only does redistributionist government direct wealth upward; in asserting a right to do so it siphons power into itself. A puzzling aspect of our politically contentious era is how little contention there is about the ethics of coercive redistribution by progressive taxation and other government “corrections” of social outcomes it considers unethical or unaesthetic.

This reticence, in an age in which political reticence is rare, reflects the difficulty of articulating principled defenses of these practices. They go undefended because they are generally popular with a public that misunderstands their net effects, and because the practices are the political class’s vocation today. The big winners from these practices are that class and the interests adept at collaborating with it.

Government uses redistribution to correct social outcomes that offend it. But government rarely explains, or perhaps even recognizes, the reasoning by which it decides why particular outcomes of consensual market activities are incorrect. When taxes are levied not to efficiently fund government but to impose this or that notion of distributive justice, remember: Taxes are always coerced contributions to government, which is always the first, and often the principal, beneficiary of them.

Try a thought experiment suggested decades ago by University of Chicago law professors Walter Blum and Harry Kalven in their 1952 essay “The Uneasy Case for Progressive Taxation,” published in their university’s law review. Suppose society’s wealth trebled overnight without any change in the relative distribution among individuals. Would the unchanged inequality at higher levels of affluence decrease concern about inequality?

Surely not: The issue of inequality has become more salient as affluence has increased. Which suggests two conclusions:

People are less dissatisfied by what they lack than by what others have. And when government engages in redistribution in order to maximize the happiness of citizens who become more envious as they become more comfortable, government becomes increasingly frenzied and futile.

© 2012, Washington Post Writers Group

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26 Comments

A.R. Nash said:

Generational theft is at the heart of big government spending because the cowards who serve in Congress don't have the spines to limit their largess to only what revenue-income covers, but have to appeal to ever greater constituencies in order to raise re-election funds via grateful donations from those whom their votes benefit. So the fiscal result is that budget deficits are unavoidable because they have so many held-out hands to satisfy. Consequently, the generational theft is more than just shifting from the younger to the older in the present, it also includes the generational theft of transferring large portions of the wealth/earnings of future generations to the present generations which benefit at the cost of future tax-payers who will get stuck with a good portion of the bill but without having had a vote in the borrowing. Taxation without representation is evil, whether it involves taking from ones contemporaries, or taking from the future. It's like the logic of smoking. The addict feels better and functions better with his/her nicotine fix, but with each puff they are stealing from their own future and shortening their own life. They don't pay today, but they sure as hell will pay tomorrow. We, as a nation, are just as selfish and unmindful of the consequences of our actions as are tobacco addicts. Just look at the non-existent federal budget and the unimaginable deficit spending. Why face a reckoning today when you can still just put it off for the future to worry about?

Sunday, January 8, 2012 at 5:42 AM

KDaunt said:

Well said. What concerns me now is, how to undo the damage and turn the tide? The larger political machine is like a juggernaut, and many participants of all groups, voters, elected officials, and government appointees, will have to make sacrifices to bring about the changes we need. How can all of us find the motivation to make those sacrifices? What can be done?

Sunday, January 8, 2012 at 8:41 AM

Sapient said:

GeorgeExcellentThere is a simple problem here, and it was nailed by James Madison:"But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself." –James Madison, Federalist 51The problem is that there are those who insist today, as they always insist, that there are angels among men who should be in government "for the good of the whole," and that THEY are those angels who should have power and authority over the rest of us.They go by many names, elitists, the anointed, but its the same group that believes they not only know better what is good for all, their eminence gives them the right to bend or skirt the laws made for the rest of us, even to the point of forcing us along their path to Utopia. Oh, they are also called tyrants and rogues.Just so we are clear on what we are dealing with.God blessDaniel Webster - “Good intentions will always be pleaded for every assumption of power … it is hardly too strong to say that the Constitution was made to guard the people against the dangers of good intentions. There are men in all ages who mean to govern well, but they mean to govern. They promise to be good masters, but they mean to be masters.”

Sunday, January 8, 2012 at 10:39 AM

Holmes Simons said:

I often feel sorrow for the grind that syndicated political commentators must endure to come up with "new ideas" on which to express opinions to avoid real issues which become quickly stale to the short attention spans of their readers.I suggest that, instead of conjuring up the "ethics of coercive redistribution", those with the power to inform and to shape public opinion should first tackle the "ethics of public service", since it is evident that at the federal level those elected officials who are charged with representing the interests of their constituents have not the moral character to forego that which serves their own self interests.

Sunday, January 8, 2012 at 12:26 PM

Jeremy said:

This is a true tour de force for Mr. Will. In a few concise paragraphs he has absolutely eviscerated modern liberalism/progressivism. There are many great lines in this article---one of the best is "People are less dissatisfied by what they lack than by what others have." Indeed, such envy is the very essence of liberalism.

Sunday, January 8, 2012 at 1:07 PM

Sapient said:

JeremyWhat is amazing to me is how the Founders had this all figured out several hundred years ago:"The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence. If `Thou shalt not covet' and `Thou shalt not steal' were not commandments of Heaven, they must be made inviolable precepts in every society before it can be civilized or made free." --John Adams, A Defense of the American Constitutions, 1787God speed

Sunday, January 8, 2012 at 1:13 PM

Jeremy said:

Sapient,You are absolutely correct. The question for our times is whether we can figure it out. It really shouldn't be that difficult, given that we've got this thing called the Constitution that pretty much spells it all out in painstaking detail. The problem is that about 99% of the self-proclaimed intellectual establishment treats the Constitution with about as much respect as toilet paper.

Sunday, January 8, 2012 at 1:42 PM

Sapient said:

JeremyDitto.We have yet to come to proper classifications so we can make proper decisions.My suggestion: the law abiding v the lawless.There have always been those who believed something about themselves put the above the law and they have an instinctive recoil toward any restraint...from "no trespassing" signs to "The Constitution." The instinctively must push the envelope, even when it doesn't matter.Consider these two, from ol Thomas Jefferson himself:"The issue today is the same as it has been throughout all history, whether man shall be allowed to govern himself or be ruled by a small elite." --Thomas Jefferson"Where the principle of difference [between political parties] is as substantial and as strongly pronounced as between the republicans and the monocrats of our country, I hold it as honorable to take a firm and decided part and as immoral to pursue a middle line, as between the parties of honest men and rogues, into which every country is divided." --Thomas Jefferson to William Branch Giles, 1795. ME 9:317 Notice "into which every country is divided."The "elite" ARE THE ROGUES.From their ranks tyrants come, and sometimes the path tyranny is via anarchy.God blessGeorge Washington Maxims:"There is a natural and necessary progression from the extreme of anarchy to the extreme of tyranny; and that arbitrary power is most easily established on the ruins of Liberty abused to licentiousness."

Sunday, January 8, 2012 at 2:11 PM

Jeremy said:

Sapient,You are absolutely correct. The question for our times is whether we can figure it out. It really shouldn't be that difficult, given that we've got this thing called the Constitution that pretty much spells it all out in painstaking detail. The problem is that about 99% of the self-proclaimed intellectual establishment treats the Constitution with about as much respect as toilet paper.

Sunday, January 8, 2012 at 3:23 PM

sunforester said:

When children believe in Santa Claus, we allow them the delight and comfort in thinking that gifts will appear for them magically out of thin air. When adults believe in Santa Claus, we think they have disturbingly lost their grip on reality. Our political elite wants to be Santa Claus to those who they specially choose to support their power, granting gifts that seem to appear magically out of thin air. The beneficiaries of such gifts refuse to look at the reality from where these gifts are stolen.Look at our healthcare system as a perfect example of magical thinking and its resulting profound injustices. Decades ago, our political elite thought it would be a swell vote-buyer to forego the requirement of payment for services rendered and force all of our emergency rooms to treat anyone who walks in the door, no matter what the ability to pay. At that time, the poor were treated at community charity hospitals - institutions that were supported by generous donors who provided reasonable funding for the poor to receive basic, sound health care.With the forced opening of our ERs to all, instead of the poor receiving decent health care that was fully paid for through charity, our health care providers suddenly had to magically come up with the resources that our political elite mandated but neglected to fully fund. Where would such resources come from? We know now from sad experience that such resources are taken from every opportunity to steal from all those patients and their health insurers who do have money. Our health care providers overtreat and overbill so notoriously and consistently that our health insurers must employ armies of claims examiners to try to separate out what is appropriately charged from what is inappropriate. To punish our health insurers for the impertinence of being honest, our political elite hamstrings our health insurers by not allowing them to raise premium rates to make up for the shifted cost of care that our Santa Claus political elite mandates. Our health care providers charge exorbitantly high costs for their services because they know that only a very few patients will ever pay, yet we have a country full of freeloading patients who demand such services as a right promised and enforced by our Santa Claus political elite. Woe betide the patient who has no other financial protection and has nice fat assets: houses and businesses are seized with impunity to pay outrageously inflated medical bills charged by our health care providers who are otherwise beggared by our political elite if they don't.Our Santa Claus political elite have taken the gifting of health care patronage to its ultimate form: Obamacare. Not a word is breathed about the real source of the magical appearance of free health care, which comes from the forced delivery of quality health care under the duress of law.Obamacare is the permanent establishment of a machine that hands outs health care patronage to freeloaders. Lots of noise is being made about the accountable care organizations (ACOs), which our political elite say will fix the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of our current health care system. The advocates of ACOs argue that our doctors and hospitals just don't do their job well enough in delivering care, pushing this bogus reason as to why costs are so high. ACOs are our political elite's method to disable any future attempt by health care providers to overbill or overtreat in order to acquire desperately needed reimbursement for mandated free health care. ACOs will place lots and lots of union dues-paying bureacrats in charge of our health care providers' ability to be paid, thus permanently imprisoning our health care providers as slaves to our political elite. This is how our once respected health care providers have been degraded and enslaved to serve the lust for power of our political elite.Our health insurers will be forced to guarantee the issue of health insurance to all, with no lower premiums for those of us who are healthy for our lower use of resources. This is a terrific deal for those who are sick, while soaking the rest of us to pay for the massive burden of those freeloading sick voters who dearly love our political elite. What a wonderfully magic outcome for those who will trade their vote for whoever hands them this incredibly valuable free lunch. This is how our once respected health insurers have been degraded and enslaved to serve the lust for power of our political elite.We are only one Supreme Court case away from our political elite trading our freedom permanently for their absolute power. Those who fervently believe in Santa Claus and remain deathly silent about the profound injustice of free health care hope that the Supremes will act as they have done for decades, and finally remove the last protection of our wealth and our self-determination from free-spending, patronage-gifting tyrants.Our Founders fought and died to establish a country free from tyranny. Our political elite have since decided that their power is more important than our freedom. By corrupting a large number of selected privileged groups, our political elite makes adults believe in Santa Claus. By stealing from the rest of us, and demonizing those who dare to resist being fleeced, our political elite have become the tyrants our Founders hated deeply enough to die fighting against.It is time to throw out the political elite who have successfully corrupted so many of us into accepting their tyranny. It is time to throw our government OUT of health care and never allow our political elite to touch it again. We cannot ever trust our political elite with anything that we can buy for ourselves - they cannot resist playing Santa Claus and pretending that the money they steal simply appears magically to those who love getting free stuff from the rest of us.

Sunday, January 8, 2012 at 3:38 PM

Sapient said:

JeremyDittoThere is a good reason, as you note, that Daniel Webster said this:"We may be tossed upon an ocean where we can see no land nor, perhaps, the sun and stars. But there is a chart and a compass for us to study, to consult, and to obey. The chart is the Constitution." Our task is actually easier than it sounds.If we divide people into the lawful and lawless categories, we can begin to see people as acceptable and unacceptable. Anyone who is in the lawless category is automatically unacceptable. If they are not, then WE are the problem.We look for those who push the envelope and in particular, those who will not be bound even by the plain meaning of words--called eisegesis--expanding the plain meaning of words into something far from what was written in order to give themselves some legal "justification" to do what was never said. We are talking original intent.The Founders made clear statements on this for good reasons, not the least of which is THAT is how you recognize people who should never be entrusted with power--EVER!!!"On every question of construction, carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit manifested in the debates and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text or invented against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed." --Thomas JeffersonOnce you have the lawless eliminated, you then look at who is left, dividing them between the honest and the immoral. The later are easy to recognize: they are the ones who insist there can be some compromise between honesty and dishonesty where honesty doesn't lose and dishonesty doesn't win.Eliminate all the immoral who think that is possible.Now you have the honest left to choose the best candidate from. HONEST MEN ONLY are acceptable.If we do not insist on honesty, well, we are a rogue nation by choice, and historically that is not a good thing to be.God bless your efforts“We know the cause which we are engaged in… We fight not to enslave, but to set a country free, and to make room upon the earth for honest men to live in." - Thomas Paine

Sunday, January 8, 2012 at 3:39 PM

India in GA said:

"People are less dissatisfied by what they lack than by what others have"YES! Cal Thomas, in writing recently about OWS, had a great line about envy being the equally bad brother of greed."And when government engages in redistribution in order to maximize the happiness of citizens who become more envious as they become more comfortable, government becomes increasingly frenzied and futile."Not only does government become increasingly frenzied and futile, but it also becomes increasingly corrupt and apt to resort to justifying any means to achieve an ever-unatainable end! I am reminded of a sermon I heard on the radio not long ago, in which the speaker reminded his audience that we must keep in mind the difference between serving God and playing God. Maybe we could let the "progessives" know...

Sunday, January 8, 2012 at 8:52 PM

A.R. Nash said:

The problem with the elites is that they don't *think* their confiscatory redistribution policies are the right way to go, instead they *know* that they are, so anything that impedes their goals for "the public good" must be bad and even, perhaps, evil. In a mind-set of hypocritical righteousness they deem their opposition as doing the work of the devil while they are doing the work of the angels. But in reality they are stealing power from the governed, stealing resources and rewards from the producers and earners, violating the spirit and letter of our fundamental law, all the while securing a very profitable feathered nest for themselves and those close to them. When hypocrisy is as thick as a blanket, they must strive to keep the spotlight on those who "aren't paying their fair share" while never once demonstrating a willingness to openly define how much is enough. All their blather is purely for partisan political points which they hope will help guarantee that they remain in power and regain even more than they currently possess. Once they are securely ensconced in their political seats they begin to feel equal to those who occupied similar seats in the first Congress after the ratification of the Constitution, and thus they feel equal to the men who served and who even wrote the Constitution. But being as they are so modern, educated, knowledgeable , and more savvy about so many things and issues that didn't exist at the birth of the nation, unavoidably they find themselves convinced that they not only are the equals of the founders but are actually their superiors since their experience is so broad and contemporary rather than limited and primitive by comparison. Hence they feel no compelling reason to defer to the Constitution or those who wrote it since they are superior in so many ways. There's no cure for this disease but all we can do is treat them like lepers and expel them from the body that represents the freedom-loving citizens of America. If that doesn't happen because they have secured a majority of government dependents to vote for them, then the ever growing bulldozer of government power over everyone will increase substantially. But it's doubtful that will happen since so many these days see the growing threat to liberty and will vote to oppose it. The problem is that the Constitution violators have turned their backs on the proper avenue of important change, which is the Constitutional amendment, and are fully committed to writing into law great changes that are either the result of mere majority votes or of liberal federal bureaucrats. So, like the supreme court, the balance can be tipped by just one vote in either house and at least one candidate can gain office via fraud in a tight election, as happened in the case of Al Franken and no doubt others.

Monday, January 9, 2012 at 5:13 AM

Paul Davis said:

The core of Will's essay is this: "The left's centuries-old mission is to increase social harmony by decreasing antagonisms arising from disparities of wealth -- to decrease inequality by increasing government's redistributive activities. Such government constantly expands under the unending, indeed intensifying, pressures to correct what it disapproves of -- the distribution of wealth produced by consensual market activities." Quite compelling, until you look more closely. 1) There's absolutely no logical connection between a belief that a society should try to decrease antagonisms arising from wealth inequality and the idea the government of such a society must "constantly expand". The society could accept any fixed level of inequality, and if it really had the desire for this, could easily accomplish it.2) The major push for reducing the "antagonisms" that Will describes comes in truth from those with more wealth, who recognize that in a system that works to their benefit, they will always be a minority. Faced with a the bleak option of a militaristic police state to ensure that those with less do not use violence against those with more (a social state that existed for centuries in many parts of the world, and continues to exist today), they chose a state that still exerts considerable control but seeks to avoid violence by ensuring that even those with less have enough to reduce the likelihood of violence and unrest. This is "redistribution", US-style, and its one of the best lies of the wealthy and powerful that this idea is somehow done in the ultimate interest of the poor.3) There's no reason to use the term "disapproves" in this discussion. One can simply make a practical observation that a society filled with antagonisms tends to be less enjoyable for all, and that therefore finding some way to reduce them is a practical approach of benefit to all. You may want to disagree over the balance between the benefits and costs to particular groups of people, but surely the cause of reducing antagonisms is one that even the most ardent, hmm, would "patriot" be a reasonable term, could get behind? You can always kill the mob if you decide that's the best approach to such reductions ...3) Its all very well to regard the redistribution of wealth that occurs in the contemporary US economy as "consensual market activities", but its also willfully ignorant of the way that economy actually works. I suspect that many adherents to the notions of liberty espoused in this publication would acknowledge as much (though they may differ in their explanation of the causes and details of the way it differs). So no matter whether it is government, or corporations, or simply rich and powerful individuals that twist the economy far from "consensual market activities", the fact remains that this is in fact how substantial wealth inequality has been generated, and is what drives the anger of so many not-rich and not-powerful Americans. Nozick had an excellent thought experiment in one of his books in which a society with completely equal wealth distribution ends up creating its first millionaire as a result of a million people paying a dollar to see a skilled basketball player. Its clear that Will and many others who appeal to libertarian ideals have this model firmly in mind when they thing about wealth inequality and "consensual market activities". It would be foolish and churlish of the left to deny that such exchanges do in fact take place, but it would be equally churlish and equally foolish of the right to deny that greed and evil continue to exist today and that huge amounts of wealth are asymmetrically transferred between parties in ways that have no resemblance to Nozick's hard-to-object-to example whatsoever.Will closes with: "Suppose society's wealth trebled overnight without any change in the relative distribution among individuals. Would the unchanged inequality at higher levels of affluence decrease concern about inequality? Surely not [ ... ]"I see nothing inevitable about his answer whatsoever. There has never been any such "trebling of wealth without any change in the relative affluence of individuals". Indeed the capital class of the US has spent most of the last 30-40 years being incredible successful and planning and benefitting from changes in technology, investment and distribution that have in fact rendered almost the opposite change than this thought experiment posits. I find it quite easy to imagine both the USA as a whole, and the left specifically, reasonably at ease with the situation posited by this thought experiment, but what we have actually been delivered (supposedly by decades of left-leaning government) is a far-more-than trebling of wealth by the richest handful of American families combined with the evisceration of the poorest, and the general stagnation of those in the middle.

Monday, January 9, 2012 at 8:54 AM

RichieRich said:

I totally agree. Not stop spending my children's retirement on your silly impetuous illegal wars!

Monday, January 9, 2012 at 8:54 AM