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Questions for redistribution's proponents

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Here are some questions for proponents of using government to redistribute income.

• Do you teach your children to envy what other children have? Do you encourage your children to form gangs with their playmates to “redistribute” toys away from richer kids on the schoolyard toward kids not so rich? If not, what reason have you to suppose that envy and “redistribution” become acceptable when carried out on a large scale by government?

• Do you not worry that creating government power today to take from Smith and give to Jones — simply because Smith has more material wealth than Jones — might eventually be abused so that tomorrow, government takes from Jones and gives to Smith simply because Smith is more politically influential than Jones?

• Suppose that Jones chooses a career as a poet. Jones treasures the time he spends walking in the woods and strolling city streets in leisurely reflection; his reflections lead him to write poetry critical of capitalist materialism. Working as a poet, Jones earns $20,000 annually. Smith chooses a career as an emergency-room physician. She works an average of 60 hours weekly and seldom takes a vacation. Her annual salary is $400,000. Is this “distribution” of income unfair? Is Smith responsible for Jones' relatively low salary? Does Smith owe Jones money? If so, how much? And what is the formula you use to determine Smith's debt to Jones?

• While Dr. Smith earns more money than does poet Jones, poet Jones earns more leisure than does Dr. Smith. Do you believe leisure has value to those who possess it? If so, are you disturbed by the inequality of leisure that separates leisure-rich Jones from leisure-poor Smith? Do you advocate policies to “redistribute” leisure from Jones to Smith — say, by forcing Jones to wash Smith's dinner dishes or to chauffeur Smith to and from work? If not, why not?

• Surveys show that Americans in general are not as bothered by income inequality as are academics and media pundits. Are the many Americans who don't suffer deep envy of others' monetary incomes naïve? Do the professors and pundits who fret incessantly over income inequality know something that most Americans don't? If so, what?

• You allege that great differences in incomes are psychologically harmful to poor people even if these poor people are, by historical standards, quite wealthy. So how do you explain the great demand of very poor immigrants to come to America — where these immigrants are relatively much poorer than they are in their native lands?

• Do you believe that someone to whom government gives, say, $100,000 year in and year out, simply because that person is a citizen of the country, feels as much psychological satisfaction as that person would feel if he learned a trade or a profession at which he earns an annual salary of, say, $80,000?

• Would you prefer to live in a society in which everyone's annual income is $50,000 or in a society with an average annual income of $75,000 but in which annual incomes range from $10,000 to $1 million? And regardless of the choice you would make, do you think others who choose differently are in error?

Donald J. Boudreaux is a professor of economics and Getchell Chair at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. His column appears twice monthly.

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