The problem with redistribution of wealth

Walter E. Williams puts forth a good argument in his latest article:

Imagine there’s an elderly widow down the street from you. She has neither the strength to mow her lawn nor enough money to hire someone to do it. Here’s my question to you, and I’m almost afraid for the answer: Would you support a government mandate that forces one of your neighbors to mow the lady’s lawn each week? If he failed to follow the government orders, would you approve of some kind of punishment ranging from house arrest and fines to imprisonment? I’m hoping that the average American would condemn such a government mandate because it would be a form of slavery, the forcible use of one person to serve the purposes of another.

Would there be the same condemnation if instead of the government forcing your neighbor to physically mow the widow’s lawn, the government forced him to give the lady $40 of his weekly earnings? That way the widow could hire someone to mow her lawn. I’d say that there is little difference between the mandates. While the mandate’s mechanism differs, it is nonetheless the forcible use of one person to serve the purposes of another.

Probably most Americans would have a clearer conscience if all the neighbors were forced to put money in a government pot and a government agency would send the widow a weekly sum of $40 to hire someone to mow her lawn. This mechanism makes the particular victim invisible, but it still boils down to one person being forcibly used to serve the purposes of another. Putting the money into a government pot makes palatable acts that would otherwise be deemed morally offensive.

This is why socialism is evil. It employs evil means, coercion or taking the property of one person, to accomplish good ends, helping one’s fellow man. Helping one’s fellow man in need, by reaching into one’s own pockets, is a laudable and praiseworthy goal. Doing the same through coercion and reaching into another’s pockets has no redeeming features and is worthy of condemnation.

I can’t find anything wrong with his logic. He also quotes James Madison, who said, “I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.” As Williams notes, “Tragically, today’s Americans would run Madison out of town on a rail.”

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11 Responses to “The problem with redistribution of wealth”

  1. JD Hill says:

    The sort of welfare that Mr. Williams is trying to exemplify has not since the Great Depression, surpassed 5% GNP. It’s a nonissue that the right always blows out of proportion. Ironically, Mr. Williams would probably be the first to gripe about the elderly widow’s yard looking like crap.

    Regarding economic governance, the moderate redistrubution of wealth that has occured in the good old U.S.A began with the great Republican, Teddy Roosavelt. Its called graduated taxes and its not about welfare.

    Rather it is about the creation of civic jobs, which include the construction of infrastructure (like schools, roads, bridges, consulates etc.). In simplistic terms, it works by forcing business to compete with governance, for labor. Wages are effectively raised by increasing demand.

    Had Mr. William’s read such books as the Politics of Inequity, D. Bell, 1981, he might realize that this great nation has slowly drifted away from this ideology since the late 1960’s, resulting in a consistent degradation of the middle class.

    That degradation has never been caused by social welfare, which has not in those same years, surpassed 5% of GNP. It has been the not so moderate redistribution of wealth upwards, that has caused this degradation.

    In another irony, the degradation of the middle class actually causes an increased need for social welfare.

    jd hill

  2. casey says:

    I think you’re missing the point, JD. Mr. Williams is using this simplified example as an illustration. He is most certainly also describing the graduated tax system you mention.

  3. JD Hill says:

    No offense meant, but his analogy is all wrong. Mowing the elderly widow’s lawn is about social welfare and not a labor intensive infrastructure that would increase demand for labor while benefiting this great nation as a whole.

    Might I add defense and the defense industry to that list of labor intensive infrastructure. Or the hydroelectric dams we once built. Should I go on or do you see the difference yet.

    jd hill

  4. casey says:

    Sorry, JD, but you lost me.

  5. JD Hill says:

    Social welfare are actions taken by governance to benefit the individual. Welfare, foodstamps, social security, medicaid, local bus service, etc are meant to help individuals. Total local, state & federal expenditures on social welfare have been consistently below 5% of Gross National Product. That’s not really much of an issue, when you consider total local, state & federal expenditures.

    The real problem is what is spent on infrastucture (including defense), which to some degree are necessary evils. But then, there’s been a lot of waste from both sides of the political fence.

    By the way, even conservatives should not insult socialism. If one drives on a freeway to whereever they choose, they do so at the bequest of D. Eisenhower’s brand of social conservatism. He was big on defense & infrastructure (as in freeways) and pretty damn good at it. A conservative who knew how to moderately redistribute.

    Not too much, not too little. Just enough to put up a stable but growth economy with a reasonably high demand for labor.

    Hope that helps.

    jd hill

  6. casey says:

    Yes, thank you for the clarification.

  7. casey says:

    Okay, now I’ve got a bit of time to respond. Here are my thoughts:
    Regardless of how small the spending is on welfare, foodstamps, social security, medicaid, etc. (I didn’t check your numbers, but I’ll take your word for it), it still involves forcefully taking money from one person to give it to another. Mr. Williams’ illustration holds true.

    As you mentioned, spending on infrastructure is a “necessary evil.” I don’t think conservatives would argue against this kind of spending, because without an infrastructure you can’t buy anything. Without a military, the country as a whole would be defenseless. Such things are used by everyone in the country, not just a select few.

    What conservatives would argue against is waste. “Bridges to nowhere” and the like. I also think that the percentage taken from everyone should be the same, since these things benefit everyone. For example, even if you don’t drive on the highway, the trucks delivering your food to the grocery store do.

    I’m no tax expert, and I haven’t even looked into the issue carefully (now maybe I will), so I can’t say that there shouldn’t be exceptions here and there or that I’ve got the perfect solution.

    We’ve gone on a tangent here, but the point of Mr. Williams’ illustration is valid. It is wrong to forcefully take someone’s earnings and give them to someone else.

  8. “The real problem is what is spent on infrastructure (including defense), which to some degree are necessary evils.”

    As far as defense is concerned it has only accounted for an average of 3.4% of the GNP of the United States in the last decade. Now this is on a budgetary level, “Since the middle 1980s, entitlement programs have accounted for more than half of all federal spending.

    Problem with socialism is it fails to take in the account of human mismanagement and creates a large red tape bureaucracy that ends up getting in the way of the very people it is trying to assist. Ever been in the military? Closest thing to a socialist commune the US has and it can be a nightmare getting what you need. All they have to manage is about 1.5 million people.

    And of course there are certain aspects of socialism in government and the economy. Just like there are aspects of free market mixed in with socialist and socialist leaning governments Look at China, Norway, Denmark, etc. However that in no way advocates a push or adoption of its flawed concepts.

  9. casey says:

    Thanks for that info, criticalthinker.

  10. dsteeger says:

    Agreed…the country James Madison envisioned is strikingly different than what he and others dreamed of. Excessive government taxation which is what bought us from Europe in the first place. The “Intolerable Acts” seem like they are to be thrust upon us again by a government that cannot seem to quench their voracious appetite for spending.

  11. gmarie says:

    I really dislike coercion. If you think about it, it doesn’t allow for the idea of freedom…the moving of the Spirit…His desire to prompt us to do for others.
    In China when they were engulfed in a sea of algae during the Olympics, they had volunteers shoveling it out by the buckets. For those who didn’t volunteer, well they were ordered to!