The Problem of Inequality


Left unfettered, the capitalist system always has and always will produce a rising standard of living for the poor and the middle class, and for the people as a whole. It also produces a constant circulation of wealth among economic classes, ensuring that great capitalist enterprises will eventually be overwhelmed by competition, and great private fortunes will soon be dissipated by their heirs, who will be replaced in the economic hierarchy by nouveaux riches. Another way of putting this is that the poor will get richer and the rich will get poorer — but there will always be large differences of wealth between the people who are most successful at the moment and the people who aren’t.

If you don’t like that, you can consider what happens under the precapitalist system, which fools are always trying to revive — the system in which the state constantly tries to control economic differences by redistributing wealth, thereby destroying it. Isabel Paterson said it best: “Destitution is easily distributed. It’s the one thing political power can insure you.”

The poor will get richer and the rich will get poorer — but there will always be large differences of wealth between the people who are most successful at the moment and the people who aren’t.

Recently, after reading some of Hillary’s Clinton’s demagogic rants about “inequality,” I happened on some words that reminded me of the unfortunate fact that total ignorance of political economy is nothing new. The words are part of an essay, “The Absurd Effort to Make the World Over,” by the early sociologist William Graham Sumner. They were published in 1894, and they show how persistent economic fallacies, and their political exploitation, have been. They were chronic even in Sumner’s time, which was supposedly the great age of laissez-faire.

Sumner writes:

It is repeated until it has become a commonplace which people are afraid to question, that there is some social danger in the possession of large amounts of wealth by individuals. I ask, Why? I heard a lecture two years ago by a man who holds perhaps the first chair of political economy in the world. He said, among other things, that there was great danger in our day from great accumulations; that this danger ought to be met by taxation, and he referred to the fortune of the Rothschilds and to the great fortunes made in America to prove his point. He omitted, however, to state in what the danger consisted or to specify what harm has ever been done by the Rothschild fortunes or by the great fortunes accumulated in America. It seemed to me that the assertions he was making, and the measures he was recommending, ex-cathedra, were very serious to be thrown out so recklessly. It is hardly to be expected that novelists, popular magazinists, amateur economists, and politicians will be more responsible. It would be easy, however, to show what good is done by accumulations of capital in a few hands — that is, under close and direct management, permitting prompt and accurate application; also to tell what harm is done by loose and unfounded denunciations of any social component or any social group. In the recent debates on the income tax the assumption that great accumulations of wealth are socially harmful and ought to be broken down by taxation was treated as an axiom, and we had direct proof how dangerous it is to fit out the average politician with such unverified and unverifiable dogmas as his warrant for his modes of handling the direful tool of taxation.

Great figures are set out as to the magnitude of certain fortunes and the proportionate amount of the national wealth held by a fraction of the population, and eloquent exclamation points are set against them. If the figures were beyond criticism, what would they prove? Where is the rich man who is oppressing anybody? If there was one, the newspapers would ring with it. . . . Wealth, in itself considered, is only power, like steam, or electricity, or knowledge. The question of its good or ill turns on the question how it will be used. To prove any harm in aggregations of wealth it must be shown that great wealth is, as a rule, in the ordinary course of social affairs, put to a mischievous use. This cannot be shown beyond the very slightest degree, if at all.

I can think of only one exception to this line of argument, but the exception has become a mighty one. When people become convinced that wealth is indeed dangerous, and they create a political culture based on the fallacies Sumner reproved, they transform their fears into reality; they make wealth dangerous. Most rich people are politically harmless, but some act on the fallacies they have been taught, and try to better the country by political activism. The heirs of Ford, Rockefeller, Kennedy, and many others have done this. George Soros is doing it right now. Almost always, these people work toward constricting the capitalist system and therefore (strange, unanticipated, and unrecognized effect) toward freezing poor people in their poverty. And as government, under such influences, attains more power, it attains the power to generate fortunes directly. This, not the capitalist system, is the origin of the vast Clinton fortune, a fortune now being used, as was the fortune of Julius Caesar, the richest man in Rome, to devastate the republic in which it grew.

This, I believe, may be the great domestic political problem of our time. (We have a lot of others, I know.) How will libertarians address it?

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Dan O'Neil

I hesitate to challenge Stephen Cox, who I respect as a towering intellect and a leading light of the libertarian movement, but I'm afraid he's overlooked the self-perpetuating monsters called "foundations". The mega-rich are compelled to create them so their 'legacy' will live on. But once their founding raison d'etre is altered -- and they all are -- they ravage reason and liberty. There is no way to stop them, to challenge or change them. They are far more dangerous than the fictitious entities called "businesses" since their sole function is to manipulate society and re-make it in their own images.

Stephen Cox

Thanks for your comment, Dan. I agree with everything you say, except that part about "a towering intellect."

Best, Stephen

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