Sunday, May 23, 2010

An Honest Redistribution

Arthur C. Brooks, president of conservative think tank the American Enterprise Institute, has a big piece in today's Washington Post decrying what he feels is an assault on free enterprise and honest labor.

Free enterprise brings happiness; redistribution does not. The reason is that only free enterprise brings earned success.
Earned success involves the ability to create value honestly -- not by inheriting a fortune, not by picking up a welfare check. It doesn't mean making money in and of itself. Earned success is the creation of value in our lives or in the lives of others. Earned success is the stuff of entrepreneurs who seek value through innovation, hard work and passion. Earned success is what parents feel when their children do wonderful things, what social innovators feel when they change lives, what artists feel when they create something of beauty.
Money is not the same as earned success but is rather a symbol, important not for what it can buy but for what it says about how people are contributing and what kind of difference they are making. Money corresponds to happiness only through earned success.
Not surprisingly, unearned money -- while it may help alleviate suffering -- carries with it no personal satisfaction. Studies of lottery winners, for instance, show that after a brief period of increased happiness, their moods darken as they no longer derive the same enjoyment from the simple pleasures in life, and as the glow of buying things wears off.
There’s a lot that is wrong with this, so I’ll pick just one thing.

The core of his argument here appears to be that redistributionist liberals would have people increase their incomes via state largess - literally in the form of cash payments -  instead of earning it “honestly”.

What would conservatism do without the tired bugaboo of welfare? Apparently redistribution, contrary to fact and policy, means “handing out checks”. Yet the reality is that redistribution simply means a progressive tax system that pays for services largely designed to increase human agency. Whether it's educating poor kids, providing medication and counseling to the mentally ill, drug treatment and prevention programs, day care for working single mothers, or healthcare subsidies and food stamps to the desperately poor.  Or hundreds of other services designed to empower individuals where they need it most.

None of this promotes dependence – a substitute for honest work. One might argue this with some success at the margins, but the vast majority of programmatic aid is a direct stimulus to human agency, resulting in compounded social (and moral) gains.  Of course, if all we were doing was throwing good money after bad, promoting dependence and fostering decreased human agency, it would be wrong. 

But progressives, in seeking to create a more just and egalitarian society, have no interest in such solutions.  In claiming that all we care about is one's bank account, Brooks is offering an absurd straw man.  If one truly understands the progressive agenda, it is nothing if not entirely focused on making sure that all people have the ability to achieve their dreams.  If only handing out welfare checks was all it took! 

Alas, the problems are far more complex.  Many mistakes have been, and will continue to be made.  But the last thing anyone wants is someone choosing to sit around on the dole when they could be attending college, doing work they enjoy, or starting their own business.  The unfortunate fact is that no one but the government has the power to step in and guarantee all citizens a fighting chance when the world seems to be against them.  Charities can help fill in the gaps here and there, but they can't do it all.  And if we are serious about a constitutional right to "a pursuit of life, liberty and happiness", then there are certain things that we must guarantee to our neediest.

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