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The Equalizers

Mises Daily: Thursday, January 27, 2000 by

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It would indeed be nice if all the people in the world were happy, well fed, secure in their health and work, loved by those they would like to have love them, and lived long lives which end pleasantly. But that just isn't going to happen, ever. Still, some people never tire of insisting that it will happen and and insist that those with the legal power to enforce their will join the noble fight.

We have here this book, by Randall Robinson, The Debt, What America Owes to Blacks, making the rounds of highbrow and earnest publications and getting wonderful reviews. There is, also, the famed animal liberation champion, Peter Singer, who recently got one of the highest prized positions in academic philosophy, at Princeton University, telling us all that nearly any wealth we have above subsistence level must be given away to those around the world who need it. His book, Practical Ethics, champions some of the most bizarre schemes of global wealth equalization.

So what are the themes of these books? In both cases, the idea is that those of us who have something of a prosperous life must be made to give it all up.

The first story goes like this: Blacks in America were abominably treated and some still experience the impact of this. Those who are the same color as the oppressors of the blacks must pay up. They must compensate current blacks for the losses they are suffering due to the past injustices.

The idea is unfounded, however. The slave owners are dead, as are the intellectuals, politicians, and bureaucrats who helped them in their cause. Most Americans now were born or came to the country long after slavery was abolished. To hold them responsible, to make them pay a debt, is a grave injustice.

There is no group of people united by some traits or traditions that hasn't been dealt a raw deal in the past and from which treatment many of its members suffered or died while others had to recover. There simply is no way to rectify some of these wrongs and to lash out against current members of the groups to whom the former oppressors belonged. To attempt this is to simply carry further the collective guilt mongering that lay behind the injustice in the first place.

What about the screaming for economic equality that Singer is voicing? It, too, rests on a misunderstanding of human life. The fact is that inequality is the norm. Basketball players are making enormous sums of money, as do company executives, movie and rock stars--and models, of course. And some of them did little work to get this money--being born very tall and agile or very pretty and shapely just doesn't make you a hard-working person who deserves astronomical fees from the Chicago Bulls or from Vogue, Mademoiselle or Elle magazines.

But that irks our self-anointed equalizers. Something has to be done about those lucky folks, who have so much. Someone has to get to them, if need be with an weapon, to part them from most of what they have and to hand it to wise folks in government to distribute it to the needy.

All this because, well, some sensitive people who can get themselves into print in nearly all the right places feel that this is the right thing to do.

There is very little else laying behind these sentiments. Peter Singer, for example has no argument to offer in support of his massive wealth redistribution scheme apart from his own strong sense that that is how the world ought to be.

But these are the folks who write the lyrics to all the sad songs that are replayed over and over again on news reports, on talk shows, in magazines and newspaper editorials: Take from those who have what we think is too much and give it to those who we think have a raw deal with life.

It just doesn't wash, because, you see, someone has to do the transfer. I certainly am not about to give most of what I have to kids starving in Bombay or Calcutta, even if I occasionally send money to Doctors Without Borders, AmeriCare or other charitable organizations. To get from me more than what I judge right you need to send out the police. You need to make a government powerful enough to subdue me and millions of others. So there goes equality, right from the start!

Yet, that is exactly what these world-reformers are demanding. Even if it is not going to get them any of the results they want. As soon as you hand folks the resources or wealth taken from others, they will spend it on things they want, thereby making the suppliers wealthy. This gets us right back to where we started. This transfer business is a perpetual motion machine and the only ones who really, ultimate get something out of it is the bureaucrats who manage it all.

The world can use improvement, yes, as can every human life lived in it. But the best approach excludes coercing everyone to follow some vision of equality that cannot be attained, ever, and which only makes some people more powerful than others not in how wealthy they are but how much force they are entitled by law to use to get their way in life.

The best improvement is to leave people as much to their own resources as possible. Any transfer needing to be done ought to be done by those who have something to offer, if that is their better judgment on the matter. This will keep all the people who want others to be conscripted to their war of equality busy doing something productive and may even help the poor and helpless get a job with which to introduce some real prosperity into their lives.

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Tibor R. Machan teaches business ethics at Chapman University and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama.