Ever since then candidate Obama's brief exchange with "Joe the Plumber" there has been plenty of mention of wealth redistribution in the major media. Then came the recovery of a 2001 interview in which the former Senator faulted the framers of the US Constitution and the Founders who authored the Declaration of Independence for not including a right of everyone to be helped with redistributed wealth. As some have noted, this was all discussed in connection with the Civil Rights legislation, which Obama also faulted for its lack of attention to wealth redistribution – maybe reparation, as some have interpreted him. But the central point was clearly more general.
It is useful, then, to consider just what wealth redistribution is all about. But to do that, we need to consider briefly what wealth is and what amounts to its initial distribution such that some favor its being redistributed.
Wealth is whatever someone owns that he or she and others consider valuable, useful to themselves or others. The ownership, in turn, can arise from working on what is given in nature or by way of earnings from marketable labor, or from gifts and inheritance from those who had earnings in the first place, or from good fortune (as when one wins the lottery or unexpectedly finds oil beneath his land), etc.
There is an ancient dispute about whether such ownership is best regarded as private or as public. At first the dispute was carried on in terms of what type of ownership, private or public, would be most useful or productive. Aristotle gave his defense of private property as follows: "For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Every one thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest; and only when he is himself concerned as an individual. For besides other considerations, everybody is more inclined to neglect the duty which he expects another to fulfill; as in families many attendants are often less useful than a few." (Politics, 1262a30-37)
The historian Thucydides made a similar point when he spoke about owners of public property. He wrote that "[T]hey devote a very small fraction of the time to the consideration of any public object, most of it to the prosecution of their own objects. Meanwhile, each fancies that no harm will come to his neglect, that it is the business of somebody else to look after this or that for him; and so, by the same notion being entertained by all separately, the common cause imperceptibly decays. (Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, bk. I, sec. 141).
It was, however, not until the English philosopher John Locke laid out his theory of natural rights that more than a utilitarian case was produced in favor the right to private property. For Locke once someone mixes his or her labor with something in the wilds, that thing stops being public – or God's – and becomes, as a matter of morality, his or her private property. This is because the work invested is properly rewarded with ownership. Thereafter the owner has the right to hold on to the property, exchange it from something else with willing others, give it as a gift to someone, bequeath it to his or her offspring, and so forth. (As to wealth come by via luck, no one is justified to take it from those who are lucky, it can be inferred, otherwise people themselves could be enslaved with impunity.)
A very important feature of Locke's idea, however, was that property doesn't belong to the king, state, or government but to God who then transfers it to private individuals. It is they who work on elements of the natural world, of what is not owned by anyone else, so they are free to obtain it, hold it, trade it, etc. For others to stop them is wrong, a violation of natural rights.
Many have criticized all these ideas, especially people who hold that everything belongs to everyone together and so wealth may not be freely used and distributed by individuals, only by "the community." But, as Aristotle and Thucydides and many others since them have made clear, this idea is seriously flawed and entirely impractical. It leads to the tragedy of the commons, of people all grabbing what they want from the common wealth and failing to use it productively.
Both for moral reasons – the "first come, first gain" principle – and for practical ones – community ownership leads to wastefulness – the principle of private property rights gained influence in Western societies, in their legal and economic systems. This is one main reason that when Senator Obama suggested that what this country needs is systematic wealth redistribution – routinely taking from private owners their wealth and having governments distribute it to non-owners – many folks took umbrage. This is quite an un-American, anti-free market capitalist idea and sounds more like what is preached by socialists and communalists (even communists).
Of course, government initiated wealth redistribution is a big part of existing American society but it is usually defended for special reasons, not as a general policy. And there is, of course, the distribution of wealth we all carry out as we engage in commerce. But as to government wealth redistribution, in the wake of wealth confiscation from the citizenry, Mr. Obama elevated what seemed to most to be an exception in this country to a central feature of the society. And his opponents, of course, couldn't effectively criticize him because Republicans have been just as willing to confiscate and then redistribute wealth as Democrats, albeit not advocate it as a systematic feature of the legal system as Obama has.
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