The “One Percent” and the Poor: Redistribution or Revolution?
“In progressive societies the concentration of wealth may reach a point where the strength of number in the many poor rivals the strength of ability in the few rich; then the unstable equilibrium generates a critical situation, which history has diversely met by legislation redistributing wealth or by revolution distributing poverty.”
― Will Durant, The Lessons of History
I read Will Durant’s The Lessons of History recently and it was one of the best books I have read in some time. Perhaps the most interesting part of the book looked at how many times civilizations have grappled with the tension between the elite class and the underprivileged poor. The quote above was the most sobering statement on this struggle since time immemorial. It is my view that we have reached a point where this issue will progressively get more acute. Whether the boiling point is upon us or not, I do not know. However, it is clear that in this most disappointing of election seasons, the two alternatives Durant highlights for resolution are on offer. One side believes that government must do more to redistribute wealth. The other side is proclaiming revolution against the lifetime politicos of Washington and external foes. The latter’s rhetoric is the rhetoric of revolution. That rhetoric is not about solutions, but about whom to blame. I do not believe in the former (redistribution) and I simply do not accept nor condone the latter (revolution). History would suggest, however, we have no other options but to choose between the two because little by little the equilibrium between the elite and the poor is eroding leading to severe upheaval. I am not sure I believe these are the only two “options,” but first let’s look at the “options” of redistribution or revolution.
Looking at redistribution, I think it is tempting to say that is the right answer. Is it “fair” that some individuals enjoy wealth that is nearly incomprehensible to the average person? Frankly, no, it’s not “fair.” It is unlikely that most of the very wealthy’s contribution to society and the economy is so many multiples greater than others’. However, if the government is to say how much wealth is enough for any one individual that puts the government in a very powerful position. That kind of power becomes unwieldy and corrupting. The government in the place of decider of winners and losers is an illogical and inappropriate role for government. Government must ensure rule of law that allows for equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome. That same equality of opportunity also needs to ensure that none are privileged through government influence. Being able to sway a government to provide preferential legislation for large corporations or wealthy individuals is inappropriate. However, it is also naïve to ignore the value of incentives to innovate, create and build.
Looking at the rhetoric of “revolution” of the other side, we face something more immediately ugly. The words used are all about whom to blame for the malaise, perceived or real. It is not the plan for a better future, it is about who did this to you and who is the person to stop “them.” This is the politics of divisiveness. “Us” versus “Them.” Durant, in Lessons of History, speaks about one force that allowed for the growth of civilization is cooperation and banding together. On the flip side, I would posit that the politics of divisiveness will weaken society. To be sure, there are those who fight against broad and general principles of civility and human rights, and those people must be opposed. But, we will always have different points of view on less fundamental issues. Why belabor that point. It is inevitable. There is no “them” in different points of view on issues. There are so many fundamentals that we share. Focus on that! Durant suggests that what we reap with the divisive revolutionary forces is the distribution of poverty. I think he is right.
So, is there no alternative to redistribution or revolution? My humble opinion is there are ways around these two “options.” But, there are no easy answers or silver bullets. Fundamental change is necessary. At a high level, if we were to think in very different ways about (1) free enterprise [not separate set of rules for those who have capital to invest, but true free enterprise], (2) racism [yes, we do have a problem and it is time to admit it and really address it], (3) education [we need to move from training cogs in the machine to problem solvers], (4) a much more active and informed electorate [“We the people…” That is, we own the problems we see today], and (5) good, skilled politicians [“outsiders” who don’t know how to engage in diplomacy, and good statecraft are not THE ONLY answer; more involved electorate needs to remove the deadwood that does not like to compromise and get things done] we could make progress.
As this election cycle has revealed there are not a lot of new and innovative ideas being put forward to change things on the issues I reference above. I fully appreciate what I suggest above covers a remarkably monumental set of challenges. But, my point is we need to think differently and move away from all the special interest monoliths that are held sacred, but are wholly ineffective. At some point, I will try to write my thoughts on each of these issues, but for now suffice it to say I think we have options other than redistribution and revolution. That said, it is going to take new approaches that require compromise and working together. Political parties are a “cheat” that allow divisive issues to be the shorthand for the people one supports. I reject parties and party politics. It furthers the notion of “us” versus “them.” We need to move into a new era of “we the people” who are committed to real solutions and addressing real problems not the pseudo-solutions that are really incarnations of special interests’ influence with government. Policies, politicians and other interests that do not address real problems in a real way must be discarded.