Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A Third Way

In a recent MSNBC article, the author seems surprised by an apparent contradiction. A recent study confirms that most Americans grossly underestimate the current level of income inequality in the United States. A related find - there is a high level of preference for more equality when presented with the numbers. So, in light of the seemingly "anti-socialist" swing underway in the current political landscape, the writer is left scratching his head:

The United States, according to this study, is a nation of people who would like to spread the wealth around. They just don't know it.

But is this really accurate? Do Americans really support redistribution through taxation and are simply too stupid and biased to realize it? I'm open to believing this to be true of some Americans, but on the whole I remain unconvinced of this notion.

The problem I have with this premise is that it only gives us enough political leg-room for two tenable positions - that either Americans with an actual preference for more equality realize current levels of it and push for government action or are ignorant of it and push against it. However, it seems quite possible that something more complex could be occurring.

Take my personal position for example. I'm currently aware of massive income inequality. I too would prefer that incomes were more in line with one another to a degree. And yet I'm in staunch opposition to government redistribution of wealth. Given the author's premise, how could someone like me resolve such a view?

Well, I'm certainly aware of the current income gap. I would like to see that gap close; but not for the sake of equality itself - rather I'd like to see the least productive people in a position to further enable their productivity to greater heights. This view is distinctly different than finding it morally objectionable that two people would prove themselves to be of different value on the market and/or that the one of greater value is somehow inflicting harm on the less productive. This difference leads into an ever greater distinction that I believe is probably a more logical solution to the intellectual dilemma.

To create a simple analogy, if I would wish or hope that every person on this planet would be able to be with the love of their life, it wouldn't lead me to a conclusion that, for people who are unable to achieve this, we should use the hand of government to subdue the objects of their affection and force them into such a role. Or, to make an even more clear analogy, if I felt that every single person should have a TV in their home, I wouldn't support the government starting a program in which they would, in the dark of night, break into homes with more than one TV to furnish the homes with none. So what does this say about me?

Well, it certainly doesn't say that I don't want more people to have TVs. On the other hand, it certainly doesn't say that I think we should engage in theft to lend people a hand. But it also certainly doesn't say anything inconsistent either - which is precisely the mental trap the aforementioned article's author finds himself in. Why is it so hard for us, collectively, to imagine a third way?

I suppose it would be too easy to chalk it up to the politics of a two-party system, but it's certainly a little scary to see bimodal dispositions on socio-political matters; simply taking into consideration what the government should do or what it should stop people from doing. It seems to be that if you believe X to be bad, then you must accordingly believe that government must remedy X. And if you believe Y to be good, then you must accordingly believe that government must provide Y. I'm left to wonder, "When did we stop considering the idea that some issues should be out of the scope of the one institution that we seem to be willing to grant a monopoly on violence to?"

In my view, a large part of what the United States was founded upon was a minimal federal government that existed only to the extent it had to - to protect us from each other. If I passed by a Salvation Army box without contributing, you wouldn't chase me down and beat me or put me in a cage. In fact, you'd probably save me from such an assailant. Yet a very large number of Americans support what is essentially the same type of coercion through the federal state apparatus via taxation and social programs. And even worse, apparently, many Americans would be likely to assume that I want the poor to suffer since I'm against such violence. Or maybe if I had contributed a few dollars they would wonder how I could be against such violence as I most obviously care about the poor.

I've felt for a very long time that the larger part of American politics is being played between the 40-yard-lines; and, in reading articles like this one, I don't think that's about to change any time soon.

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