While n+1 welcomes the new financial regulatory bill passed last week by Congress, we think it’s important to remember that real financial reform will come through taxation, which it is our democratic right to regulate to reflect the values we hold most dear. Toward that end, we are posting Mark Greif’s essay on redistribution from Issue 4.
One of the lessons of starting a magazine today is that if you pay any attention to politics you will collect a class of detractors, who demand immediately to know What and Wherefore and Whether and How. Are you to be filed next to Mother Jones and Z and American Spectator in the back row, or with the Nation and Weekly Standard and the American Prospect up front? Is it possible you have not endorsed a candidate, or adopted a party? Within the party, a position? If not a position, an issue? The notion that politics could be served by thinking about problems and principles, rather than rehearsing strategy, leaves them not so much bemused as furious.
The furious political detractors need “responsibility,” which in their hands is a fiction of power. If you question the world from an armchair, it offends them deeply. If you believe you run the world from it, it exalts them—because you have bought into the fiction that justifies their elitism. These commentators who have no access to a legislative agenda and really no more exalted basis for political action than that of their ordinary citizenship (but they do not believe they are ordinary citizens) bleat and growl and put themselves on record for various initiatives of Congress over which they have no influence and upon which they will have no effect. To be on record is to be “politically responsible” in that false sense. No rebuke is made to the process of opinionating itself—this ritual of fomenting an opinion on everything, and so justifying the excited self-stimulation of a class of unelected arbiters who don’t respect the citizens within themselves.
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“What do you stand for! What will you do!” Legislatively? Are you kidding? Well, there is something one can do, without succumbing to the pundits: for the day when the Congress rolls up to our doorsteps and asks for our legislative initiatives, maybe it is up to every citizen to know what is in his heart and have his true bills and resolutions ready. Call it “political surrealism”—the practice of asking for what is at present impossible, in order to get at last, by indirection or implausible directness, the principles that would underlie the world we’d want rather than the one we have.
§ Principle: The purpose of government is to share out money so that there are no poor citizens—therefore no one for whom we must feel guilty because of the arbitrariness of fate. The purpose of life is to free individuals for individualism. Individualism is the project of making your own life as appealing as you can, as remarkable as you like, without the encumbrances of an unequal society, which renders your successes undeserved. Government is the outside corrective that leaves us free for life.
§ Legislative Initiative No.1: Add a tax bracket of 100 percent to cut off individual income at a fixed ceiling, allowing any individual to bring home a maximum of $100,000 a year from all sources and no more.
§ Legislative Initiative No.2: Give every citizen a total of $10,000 a year from the government revenues, paid as a monthly award, in recognition of being an adult in the United States.
The redistribution of wealth can be unnerving whenever it comes up, and most unnerving to those who have least wealth, because they have worked hardest for every dollar and can’t afford to lose it.
But redistribution comes in two steps, and when you look at the steps it’s not so unnerving. The first step was already accomplished last century. It was the permanent establishment of a graduated income tax, one of the greatest triumphs of civilization. A consensus was built to grade taxation to equalize the relative pain of taxation for each income earner. A little money is as useful to a person with little money overall as a larger sum is useful to a person with lots of money—and so, for equal citizenship, they carry an equal burden. Tax them proportionately the same, and everyone pays the same stake for government with the same degree of sacrifice.
The second step is our task in this century. It is an active redistribution to help dissolve the two portions of society whose existence is antithetical to democracy and civilization, and which harm the members of each of these classes: the obscenely poor and the absurdly rich. Each group must be helped. That means not only ending poverty, but ending absurd wealth. Obscene poverty doesn’t motivate the poor or please the rest of us; it makes the poor desperate, criminal, and unhappy. Absurd wealth doesn’t help the rich or motivate the rest of us, it makes the rich (for the most part good, decent, hardworking and talented people) into selfish guilty parties, responsible for social evil. It is cruel to rig our system to create these extremes, and cast fellow citizens into the two sewers that border the national road. For all of us, both superwealth and superpoverty make achievement trivial and unreal, and finally destroy the American principles of hard work and just deserts. Luckily, eradicating one (individual superwealth) might help eradicate the other (superpoverty).
True property is that which is proper to you: what you mix your hands into (Locke), what is characteristic of you and no one else, and would change state in anyone else’s possession. It is your clothes, your domicile, the things you touch and use, the land you personally walk. Property is the proprium, a possession which becomes like a characteristic; it starts as if it could belong to anyone, and comes to be what differentiates you. If it wears the mark of your feet and the smudge of your fingertips, your scent and your private atmosphere, then there is indeed something special and inviolable about property, even where it has come into your hands inequitably, by inheritance or a surfeit of income. The diamond worn at the throat every evening must share a certain protection, under the law, with the torn cloak that keeps some shivering person warm.
This is distinct, however, from all wealth which is not capable of being used in the ordinary necessities of a life or even the ordinary luxuries. From any wealth that cannot be touched or worn or walked every day by its possessor, which neither comes from nor enables the mixing-in of hands but always and inevitably exists as a kind of notional accumulation of numbers, the protection of the proprium withdraws. When you have more houses than you or loved ones can live in, more cars than you can drive; more income in a year than can be spent on what you or your family can actually use, even uselessly use; then we are not speaking of property anymore, not the proprium, but of the inappropriate and alien—that which one gathers to oneself through the accident of social arrangements, exploiting them willfully or accidentally, and not through the private and the personal.
Thus the rationale for restricting income. Inequality will always exist, but in itself it is something different. One has to recognize that while the proprium may be passed down in nonmonetary forms, too—in the peculiarities of your genetics from your parents; in the heirloom, dwelling, tool, or decoration which wears the traces of hands and breath—income always comes as a consequence of arrangements of the community, via the shared space of trade, the discussion and rules, the systems of investment, and all the voluntary associations of society, of which the largest association is government.
A rich person—continuing to draw $100,000 a year in income—stays rich, but puts part of it into his own home and bank account and part into the needs and luxuries he may actually use. This sum will be converted reasonably into the proper, the personal, without any absurdity. A superrich person, however, who takes in $1 million, $10 million, or $100 million, will not and can never spend it on any sane vision of the necessities of life, at least not without a parasitic order in which normal goods (a home, a dinner) are overpriced (by the existence of those who will compete to pay for them) and other goods are made to be abnormal and bloated (like the multiacre mansion). The social system allocates the extra $9,900,000 mistakenly. Reallocated, it would do much more benefit in a guaranteed citizens’ income for many individuals in households with total incomes both above and below the median (now about $45,000 per household). But this is without—and this is very important—doing any harm to the formerly superrich person; if anything, it may do him a great benefit.
(And it should also be without any person or office to decide to whom money should be allocated. The goal is an automatic mechanism and universal good, not a form of control. Everyone must be given an equal sum, the $10,000, to help him be free. And that must include the rich top earner of $100,000—to keep him free, too, with the opportunity, through all the years of his adulthood, to change his life.)
The threat from those who oppose this line of thought is that, without “incentives,” people will stop working. The worst-case scenario is that tens of thousands of people who hold jobs in finance, corporate management, and the professions (not to mention professional sports and acting) will quit their jobs and end their careers because they did not truly want to be bankers, lawyers, CEOs, actors, ballplayers, et cetera. They were only doing it for the money! Actually they wanted to be high school teachers, social workers, general practitioners, stay-at-home parents, or criminals and layabouts.
Far from this being a tragedy, this would be the greatest single triumph of human emancipation in a century. A small portion of the rich and unhappy would be freed at last from the slavery of jobs that aren’t their life’s work—and all of us would be freed from an insane system.
If there is anyone working a job who would stop doing that job should his income—and all his richest compatriots’ incomes—drop to $100,000 a year, he should not be doing that job. He should never have been doing that job—for his own life’s sake. It’s just not a life, to do work you don’t want to do when you have other choices, and can think of something better (and have a $10,000 cushion to supplement a different choice of life). If no one would choose to do this job for a mere $100,000 a year, if all would pursue something else more humanly valuable; if, say, there would no longer be anyone willing to be a trader, a captain of industry, an actor, or an athlete for that kind of money—then the job should not exist.
The supposed collapse of the economy without unlimited income levels is one of the most suspicious aspects of commonplace economic psychology. Ask yourself, for once, if you believe it. Does the inventor just not bother to invent any more if inventions still benefit larger collectivities—a company, a society—but do not lead to a jump in his or any other inventor’s already satisfactory personal income? Do the professions really collapse if doctors and lawyers work for life and justice and $100,000, rather than $1 million? Will the arts and entertainment collapse if the actors, writers, and producers work for glory and $100,000? Do ballplayers go into some other line and stop playing? If you’re panicking because you can’t imagine a ceiling of $100,000, well, make it $150,000. Our whole system is predicated on the erroneous idea that individuals are likely to hate the work they have chosen, but overwhelmingly love money. Presumably the opposite should be true. Even the really successful trader must love his work in some way—he enjoys the competition, temporarily measured in money, and the action and strategy and game of thought and organization, which are his life’s calling. And all this glory could be pursued in a society in which he only took home $100,000 from this sport of kings—and he, and all of us, might be better off.
“But how can you ask other people to lower their salaries, without giving your life to charity, first? Isn’t it hypocrisy to call for change for everyone without turning over your own income?” Morality is not saved by any individual’s efforts to do charity, a pocketful here, a handful there. Charity is the vice of unequal systems. (I’m only repeating Wilde’s “The Soul of Man Under Socialism.”) We shouldn’t have to weigh whether our money would do more good in a destitute person’s pocket, or our time do more good if we ladled soup to the hungry, or our study do more good if it taught reading to the illiterate. It always, always would. Because it is hard to give up your money, however, when not everyone else does, and hard to give up your time when not everyone else does—and nearly impossible when you have less time, and less money, than the visibly rich and comfortable—and frankly, because it’s not often a good idea to give up your true calling or your life at all, our giving is limited and fitful. It can never make a large-scale difference.
Not only decency, justice, and community but nobility, excellence, and individualism can only come about by redistribution, not charity, in a society organized against drastic monetary inequality in the first place. It would be a good society in the broadest sense, one in which life was worth living, because the good life (as a life of morality, and as a life of justified luxury) could be pursued without contradiction.
The essence of individualism is morally relevant inequality. The misuse of inequality occurs when it comes to be based on wealth rather than ability; on birth rather than talent; on positioning rather than genius; on alienable money (which could belong to anyone) rather than action and works (which can only be done by you). These distortions spell the end of a society of individualists. Money inequality creates a single system which corrals every person and places him above or beneath another, in a single file stretching from hell to the moon. These so-called “individualists” will then be led, by the common standard of the dollar, to common interests, common desires, and little that’s individual at all.
Some say, the more the rich are rich, the better off will everyone be. But really the Dick Cheneys of this world are obese because they’re eating everybody else’s dinner. Trickle-down economics is an alimentary philosophy: The more the rich eat, the more crusts they stuff in their maws, the more they create for the benefit of all the rest of us underneath them. Even if it worked, one could not forget that what they pass on to us is predigested, already traveling through their stomachs and fattening them first, giving excess nutriment to the undeserving. Their monuments, too, which we do marvel at, are composed of waste. Why gain the world as excrement? Why should we not take it in its morally original form—if money need not pass through the rich to reach us?
§ Legislative Initiative No.3. It makes most sense to have a president and vice president who will forswear wealth permanently. A man who rules for the demos need not come from the demos. But he ought to enter it; he ought to become one of the people he is responsible most for helping—that means the rest of us.
Worst-case scenario two, if we prioritize human satisfaction instead of productivity, is de-development. For centuries, it has been at the back of the Western mind that technological development might reach a point at which a democratic community would want to stop, or change direction. So the Erewhonians, in Butler’s utopia, broke their machines.
It’s finally become possible to take a better view: not unlimited laissez-faire hubris, and not irrational machine-breaking either. In a country where some portions of development have gone further than anybody would like, because of everyone’s discrete private actions (as in the liquidation of landscape and the lower atmosphere)—while other portions, as in medical insurance and preventive care, have not gone far enough—then intentional de-development might be the best thing that can occur. The eradication of diseases is not something you would like to see end; nor would you want to lose the food supply, transportation, and good order of the law and defense. On the other hand, more cell phones and wireless, an expanded total entertainment environment, more computerization for consumer tracking, greater concentrations of capital and better exploitation of “inefficiencies” in the trading of securities, the final throes of extraction and gas-guzzling and—to hell with it. I’d rather live in a more equal world at a slower pace.