Rebirth of Reason


Machan's Musings - The Nonsense of "Social Wealth"
by Tibor R. Machan

Columnist — and Princeton University MA and Ph.D. in the field of politics — George F. Will made some telling points recently about the disingenuous claim by John Kerry that he is not a "redistribution Democrat." As Will noted, of course, Kerry is, big time, and so, incidentally, are the bulk of Republicans. They all love to take people’s resources and allocate them according to their own priorities — just like all thieves do.

In discussing the matter, however, Will makes a point that is far less tenable than his identification of both Democrats and Republicans as lovers of wealth redistribution. Will says, "There is no ‘natural’ distribution of social wealth. Distribution is influenced by many social arrangements, from property laws to tax laws, to educational arrangements, all of them political choices."

If one follows Will’s reasoning, then anyone who deprives another person of the fruits of his labor or other assets can argue that this doesn’t upset any natural order of things but amounts only to "influence" from social arrangements, including robbery, extortion, theft, embezzlement and the like. But this makes it appear that prior to such "social arrangements" what took place wasn’t the natural order of things.

Let’s put it this way. Although it is often the case that human actions and institutions significantly rearrange the world, there is, in fact, an arrangement that’s natural prior to this (history of) rearrangement. It’s a bit like all that body surgery that goes on in Hollywood and elsewhere — the significantly rearranged faces, breasts, lips, and such had, at one time, a non-artificial or "natural" configuration, for good or for ill.

The same holds when it comes to private property. Everyone’s assets and labor — such as talents, beauty, and earnings from work — are the natural arrangement of wealth in any society, again for better or for worse. Some pretty nasty people do happen to have some fine resources, by virtue of what others have given them free and clear, by virtue of their looks or health, even because of their work. These are naturally theirs — they have a natural right to these — whether the law acknowledges it or not. When one works for a living, gains an income that’s provided voluntarily by other people, that is natural — it follows the natural laws or ethics of human conduct. When consent governs the exchange of resources among people, that, too, is natural since it respects a fundamental aspect of human nature, namely, our capacity and need to choose how we will live. Natural law and rights political theorists, such as John Locke and Thomas Jefferson, understood this. George F. Will must know about it but he seems to reject the idea.

That is one reason Will can speak so unhesitatingly of "social wealth." As if wealth someone just occurred, came about and set itself upon society and now the task for some of us — politicians? Judges? Pundits? — is to redistribute this wealth in line with some plan, kind of how the Soviets in the Kremlin used to think of wealth, as a social product, following Karl Marx’s ideas.

But wealth never just descends upon a society — even if the territory on which the society happens to reside is rich in so called natural resources. All of that needs to be transformed into something of value to people and that takes individual and freely combined human ingenuity and labor. And the natural order of things is when those who invest this ingenuity and labor own the stuff they have transformed into something useful. And the next stages that are natural, instead of artificially imposed by politicians via their laws and regulations, involve these original owners freely distributing what they own, according to their choices. That’s natural economic justice!

The opposite of this is when the owners are forcibly deprived of what they own, or when those to whom they "distributed" the wealth peacefully, voluntarily, get it taken from them by the taxing bureaucrats, in line with the orders of the politicians. Those are Will’s "social arrangements" that are completely divorced from nature.

The story can get complicated and laws are supposed to help us through the maze of such complication, not distort it all good and hard via redistribution. But the bottom line is that there are standards, albeit often difficult to identify, for keeping matters as close to being natural as possible.

The views of folks like Will, of course, help to derail any such effort by claiming that it is all a matter of arbitrary, social arrangements. It can but need by no means be. That is why the American Founders laid out a set of principles and tried to make them the basis of the law, so as to retain the natural order of things in a complex world.
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