Fallacies Of Economic Equality That Promote Poverty

This column by ACRU General Counsel and Senior Fellow for the Carleson Center for Public Policy (CCPP) Peter Ferrara was published July 7, 2011 on

“The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.”

So began Kurt Vonnegut’s 1961 short story “Harrison Bergeron,” published in the volume Welcome to the Monkey House. In that brave, new world, the government forced each individual to wear “handicaps” to offset any advantage they had, so that everyone could be truly and fully equal. Beautiful people had to wear ugly masks to hide their good looks. The strong had to wear compensating weights to slow them down. Graceful dancers were burdened with bags of birdshot. Those with above average intelligence had to wear government transmitters in their ears that would emit sharp noises every 20 seconds, shattering their thoughts “to keep them… from taking unfair advantage of their brains.”

But Harrison Bergeron was a special problem, because he was so way above average in everything. Vonnegut explained, “Nobody had every borne heavier handicaps…. Instead of a little ear radio for a mental handicap, he wore a tremendous pair of earphones, and spectacles with thick wavy lenses.” Seven feet tall, “Scrap metal was hung all over him” to offset his strength, to the point that “Harrison looked like a walking junkyard.”

The youthful Harrison did not accept these burdens easily, so he had been jailed. But with his myriad advantages and talents, he had broken out. An announcement on TV explained the threat, “He is a genius and an athlete…and should be regarded as extremely dangerous.”

Harrison broke into a TV studio, which was broadcasting the performance of a troupe of dancing ballerinas. On national television, he illegally cast off each one of his handicaps. Then he did the same for one of the ballerinas, and then the orchestra, which he commanded to play. To shockingly beautiful chords, Harrison and the ballerina began to dance. Vonnegut explained the beauty of their dance:

“Not only were the laws of the land abandoned, but the laws of gravity and the laws of motion as well….The studio ceiling was thirty feet high, but each leap brought the dancers nearer to it. It became their obvious intention to kiss the ceiling. They kissed it. And then, neutralizing gravity with love and pure will, they remained suspended in air inches below the ceiling, and they kissed each other for a long, long time.”

At that moment, in barged the Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers, with a double barreled shotgun, and she shot the two lawbreakers dead to the floor.

As I argue in my new book, America’s Ticking Bankruptcy Bomb, social safety net policies to prevent human suffering and deprivation are well justified. In civilized societies, there is broad consent to such policies, which just recognize the moral obligation of each to help their fellow man.

But once such policies are established, going beyond them to take from some by force of law what they have produced and consequently earned, to give to others merely for the purpose of making incomes and wealth more equal, is unjustifiable and counterproductive. Vonnegut’s story helps to explain why.

First, to achieve true and comprehensive equality would involve gross violations of personal liberty, as the talented and capable must be prevented from using their abilities and advantages to get ahead of others, or to make any feel inferior. The more productive must be prevented from using their abilities to produce more than others, and any extra production that breaks through must be seized from them to be redistributed to others. This is why in all those societies that have tried to enforce the more extreme vision of mandatory equality, totalitarian governments have emerged, trying to enforce that vision on all. A thoroughgoing government structure must develop to impose and enforce social control on the most productive, or on any potential outbreak of “excess” productivity.

We can see as well that this vision of equality is not actually fair. It is not fair to the beautiful to force them to wear ugly masks. It is not fair to the productive to deprive them of what they have produced, merely to make them equal to others who have produced less. As Vonnegut’s story shows, putting social limits on the success that people are allowed to achieve with their own talents and abilities makes for an ugly society, harshly restrictive on its best lights who have the most actually to give to the benefit of all.

Finally, this vision of equality as a social goal, with equal incomes and wealth for all, is severely counterproductive economically, and so makes for a poor society as well. Pursuing such a vision would require very high marginal tax rates on anyone with above average production, income and wealth, which experience as well as theory shows us leads to less production.

If income and wealth is going to be equalized, why would anyone save or invest? Savings and investment just adds to wealth, and wealth is anti-social under a social justice regime of equal wealth for all. Indeed, the only rational strategy for everyone under such a regime is to consume all income and not save or invest anything. For anyone who saves and invests more than others will see that savings and investment expropriated, and anyone who saves and invests less than others will be rewarded with a grant from the government to make their savings equal to all others.

The only difference between the prosperity of modern industrial society and the subsistence living of cavemen is savings and investment. All the tools and equipment that enable us to produce more than what was enjoyed during caveman days come from investment, made possible by savings.

Under a social justice regime of equal income and wealth for all, there would be no reason for anyone even to work. If you work more than others, and earn more income as a result, the above average results of all that work would be expropriated. If you don’t work at all, then you would receive a grant from whatever government might possibly be functioning so that you still consumed the same average amount of goods and services as everyone else.

So under a social justice regime of equal income and wealth for all, the only rational strategy for everyone would be, literally, “Party till you drop.” Maybe this is why the Bible tells us that envy is one of the seven deadly sins. Observe the similar logical results under a strict regime of “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” With above average ability taxed at a marginal tax rate of 100%, any such ability will be very hard to find. With all needs heavily subsidized, expect a cornucopia of such need.

This is exactly what happens to the economies of societies where the social justice vision of equal results for all is most assiduously followed. See North Korea and Cuba, or for that matter compare North Korea with South Korea, or the old East Germany with the old West Germany. Or China of the 1960s and 1970s with the Japan of that time. Or China of the 1960s and 1970s with the China of today.

Such economic results lead to further restrictions on personal liberty. The more productive would naturally want to leave any regime of forced equalization of incomes and wealth, for they are just being plundered by the rest of society, and would be prevented from achieving their full potential. So the regime would have to maintain tight restrictions on emigration and international travel to avoid losing the society’s most productive citizens. But this wouldn’t just be a problem among the most productive. Most would not want to live in an economically stagnant, poor society. The great majority would want to flee as well to lands of greater opportunity and prosperity. So the regime would have to restrict everyone from leaving, imposing on the liberty of all. This is where the Berlin Wall came from.

What we fail to understand in America today is how far down this road we have already gone. In 2007, before Barack Obama was even elected President, official IRS data revealed that the top 1% of income earners already paid more in federal income taxes than the bottom 95% combined. The top 1% paid over 40% of the federal income taxes, almost twice their share of national income. The top 3% paid more in federal income taxes than the bottom 97% combined.

We see the same in some states. In California, the top 1% pay 48% of all state income taxes. In New York, the top 1% of income earners pay 41% of all state income taxes. In New Jersey, until recently the top 1% of income earners paid 46% of state income taxes, and Castroite government employee unions want to bring those policies back.

Yet, President Obama has devoted his Administration to raising their taxes even more. In 2013, with the Bush tax cuts expiring, and the Obamacare tax increases becoming fully effective, the top tax rates of virtually every major federal tax are already scheduled under current law to increase sharply. And in his 2012 budget, and in the debt limit debate, President Obama is proposing to raise taxes on the nation’s job creators, investors, and businesses large and small, even more.

Until these socialist policies of tax piracy are reversed, and true equality of law rather than equality of results is applied to all, get used to the new normal of accelerating economic decline for America, and say good-bye to the American Dream.