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The Poverty of Equality

Fairness requires that President Obama read up on his Kurt Vonnegut.

By and From the April 2012 issue

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The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren't only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.

So began Kurt Vonnegut's 1961 short story "Harrison Bergeron." In that brave new world, the government forced each individual to wear "handicaps" to offset any advantage he had, so everyone could be truly and fully equal. Beautiful people had to wear ugly masks to hide their good looks. The strong had to wear compensating weights to slow them down. Graceful dancers were burdened with bags of bird shot. Those with above-average intelligence had to wear government transmitters in their ears that would emit sharp noises every 20 seconds, shattering their thoughts "to keep them…from taking unfair advantage of their brains."

But Harrison Bergeron, who was far above average in everything, was a special problem. Vonnegut explained, "Nobody had ever borne heavier handicaps.… Instead of a little ear radio for a mental handicap, he wore a tremendous pair of earphones, and spectacles with thick wavy lenses." To offset his strength, "Scrap metal was hung all over him," to the point that the seven-foot-tall Harrison "looked like a walking junkyard."

The youthful Harrison did not accept these burdens easily, so he had been jailed. But with his myriad advantages and talents, he had broken out. An announcement on TV explained the threat: "He is a genius and an athlete…and should be regarded as extremely dangerous."

Harrison broke into a TV studio, which was broadcasting the performance of a troupe of dancing ballerinas. On national television, he illegally cast off each one of his handicaps. Then he did the same for one of the ballerinas, and then the orchestra, which he commanded to play. To shockingly beautiful chords, Harrison and the ballerina began to dance.

Not only were the laws of the land abandoned, but the laws of gravity and the laws of motion as well.…The studio ceiling was thirty feet high, but each leap brought the dancers nearer to it. It became their obvious intention to kiss the ceiling. They kissed it. And then, neutralizing gravity with love and pure will, they remained suspended in air inches below the ceiling, and they kissed each other for a long, long time.

SOCIAL SAFETY NETS that provide basic help for the needy to prevent human suffering are easily justifiable on moral grounds. Nearly everyone supports them to prevent severe hardship among those disabled, widowed, orphaned, or even just temporarily down on their luck. In modern and wealthy societies like ours, there is broad voter consent to such policies, which ensure people do not suffer deprivation of the necessities of life: food, shelter, and clothing. This recognizes we have a moral obligation to help our fellow man. It's always an open question how much of that should fall to private charity and how much should be done through government taxation. That said, the truth is, such safety nets, if focused on the truly needy and designed to rely on modern markets and incentives, would not be costly compared to the immense wealth of our society.

But once such policies are established, going further—taking from some by force of law what they have produced and consequently earned, and giving to others merely to make incomes and wealth more equal—is not justifiable. Vonnegut's story helps explain why.

First, achieving true and comprehensive equality would require violating personal liberty, as the talented and capable must be prevented from using their advantages to get ahead. Under this philosophy, the most productive must be treated punitively through high tax rates simply because they used their abilities to produce more than others. What we have just described is a progressive tax system. Work and produce a little bit, and we take 10 percent. Work and produce more, and we take 20 percent, and so on. Some societies take as much as 90 percent of the marginal output, as the U.S. did after World War II.

In a society where men and women are angels who always put the welfare of others ahead of their own, this system—from each according to his ability, to each according to his need—might even work. High tax rates wouldn't have any negative consequences because everyone would work for everyone else's benefit. Society would be like one, large commune, with everyone working for the common good. The ambitious, hard worker would get the same pay as the one who sleeps in and lives a lazy lifestyle. Output would be high, and we would have almost complete equality of outcome.

The problem, of course, is that men are not angels. We are driven by self-interest-not entirely, of course, but enough that giving everyone an equal share despite unequal contributions would severely deter work incentives. This is why in all those societies that have tried to enforce the more extreme vision of mandatory equality, totalitarian governments and poverty have emerged. And, by the way, in practice these societies are not very equal either. Richer and freer countries tend to have smaller income disparities than poorer and less free nations.

Moreover, as Vonnegut's story illustrates, inequalities of wealth and income are not the only important differences in society. If equality is truly a moral obligation, then inequalities of beauty, intelligence, strength, grace, talent, etc. logically all should be leveled as well. That would require some rather heavy-handed government intervention. It is not fair that LeBron James has a 40-inch vertical leap, and we have a 4-inch vertical leap (combined). It is not fair that some have high IQs, and others are below average. It is not fair that Christie Brinkley is beautiful, that some people are born with photographic memories, that one person gets cancer and the next one doesn't. We Americans were born in a land of opportunity and wealth, while billions around the world are born into poverty and squalor. We won the ultimate lottery of life just by being born in this great and rich country. Where is the justice in that?

THE GOAL OF A SOCIETY should not and cannot be to make people equal in outcomes, an impossibility given the individual attributes with which we were each endowed by our creator. It is the opposite of justice and fairness to try to equalize outcomes based on those attributes. It is not fair to the beautiful to force them to wear ugly masks. It is not fair to the strong to punish them by holding them down with excess weights. It is not fair to the graceful and athletic to deprive them of their talents. In the same way, it is not fair to the productive, the risk taking, or the hard working, to deprive them of what they have produced, merely to make them equal to others who have worked less, taken less risk, and produced less.

As Vonnegut's story shows, putting social limits on the success people are allowed to achieve with their own talents and abilities makes everyone worse off, because it deprives society of the benefits of their brilliance and beauty and skill and talent. The fact that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs made billions of dollars in income—more than some whole societies make—has on paper made America more unequal. But is the middle class better or worse off for Microsoft and Apple products? Should we curse the invention of the personal computer, which is now in nearly every home in America, simply because it made these men unthinkably wealthy? Since hundreds of millions of people buy their products willingly, it would seem self-evident that Mr. Gates and Mr. Jobs generated a better world for everyone, not just for themselves.

Finally, this vision of equality as a social goal, with equal incomes and wealth for all, is severely counterproductive economically, and so makes for a poor society as well. Pursuing such a vision would require very high marginal tax rates on anyone with above-average production, income, and wealth, which theory and experience show leads to decreased production. As we saw in our discussion of tax policy above, the less people are allowed to keep of what they produce, the less they will produce.

A good and just tax system should be designed to make the poor rich, not the rich poor. The preoccupation with equality reverses these two objectives, such as when Barack Obama says we should raise the capital gains rate even if it doesn't increase government revenue, for "the purpose of fairness." How is an outcome that hurts everyone fair?

IT'S EASY TO THINK of other unfavorable results of this fairness fetish. Under the social justice of equal income and wealth for all, investment would make no sense. People invest only to earn returns, which means more income. Anyone who invests more would have a higher income, which would be expropriated to the extent it was above the average. But anyone who invests less and thus has a below-average income would be rewarded with a grant from the government to ensure equality. So, again, the only rational strategy would be to avoid all investment.

China is one good recent example. During the era of communism in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s, when all land was cultivated for the "common good" and food was evenly distributed to all, regardless of how much one worked, China produced way too little food, and many millions of people, including children, starved to death. But then, starting in the 1980s, agricultural reforms began to emerge that allowed farmers to take a small plot of land and keep the food they grew. An amazing thing happened. Production of food on these very small tracts surged multiples higher than the output on the communal lands. The Chinese farmers saw output double and even triple from the previous arrangement where all food was put in a communal pot. Private ownership of the farms led to a green revolution, and China quickly became a food exporter.

Was this because the Chinese people are selfish and don't care about their fellow man? No, Chinese culture is no more selfish than any other. It's just that we as human beings are hardwired to put our own well-being and that of our kids above that of the fellow we don't even know. The human pursuit of happiness begins for most by taking care of themselves and their families. That is deeply ingrained into our cores.

We would add that the alternative course of demanding equality of opportunity can (and almost always does in practice) lead to the subordination of other values, such as personal liberty. As one example, the talented almost always want to leave societies where their talents are suppressed. Think of North Korea, or Cuba, or East Germany after World War II. These regimes quickly discovered that to keep their nations from economic collapse, they had to enforce tight restrictions on emigration and international travel to avoid losing their most productive citizens. And it wasn't just the best and brightest who wanted to leave. Many average citizens wanted to flee from economically stagnant, poor societies. So the governments had to restrict everyone from leaving and impose on the liberty of all. This is where the Berlin Wall came from. It was not a wall to keep invaders out. It was to keep citizens captive.

BUT DOESN'T THE DECLARATION of Independence itself say "All men are created equal," and isn't equality a fundamental American ideal? Yes, but these expressions invoke a concept of equality different from the social justice concept of equal incomes and wealth for all.

The original and traditionally American concept of equality is "equality under the law." That means the same rules apply to all, not the same results. Baseball is a fair game because the same rules apply to all players.

Equality of rules protects the property of all, which encourages saving, investment, and work, because all are assured protection for the fruits of their labor. Equality of rules ensures that all enjoy the same freedom of contract, which empowers them to maximize value and production, and plan investment knowing they can rely on their agreed contractual rights. Equality of rules provides a framework in which all are free to pursue their individual visions of happiness to the maximum extent.

Within this framework of equal rules for all, the outcome of the market in terms of income and wealth is fair, for two fundamental reasons. The first is that people basically earn in the market the value of what they produce. Economists say more formally that wages equal the marginal productivity of labor. That encompasses both the quantity and rarity of each worker's output. If the worker's output is unique, that output will be worth more, to the extent that people value it, because only he can produce it. James Patterson has gotten rich writing mystery novels that readers buy because they derive happiness from his thrillers and are captivated by his plots. Every one of us can sing, but Katy Perry has a string of number-one hits that young people all over the world want to listen to over and over.

Alex Rodriguez and LeBron James each make a lot more money than any teacher, or any doctor. In a broad social sense, what teachers and doctors do is worth much more than what professional athletes do. Sure, not everyone can teach, and fewer still can practice medicine. But only Alex Rodriguez and LeBron James can do what they do, which entertains millions at the stadium, on the radio, on television, and in the paper the next morning. Each fan is willing to pay a little in return for their unique performances. What they get is not unfair. They earn it, through talent and hard work.

THIS IS WHY it is wrong to even speak of the "distribution" of income and wealth. Income and wealth are not distributed. Income and wealth are created, and in a fair society they come into the world attached to the rightful owner that produced them. As the late Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick wrote, "Whoever makes something, having bought or contracted for all other held resources used in the process…is entitled to it. The situation is not one of something's getting made, and there being an open question of who is to get it." If income and wealth are not attached to the owner that produced them, they tend not to be created at all.

Moreover, what is produced is not taken from anyone else. It is created by the worker, the earner, and does not come at the expense of others. The economy is not a fixed pie with slices handed out by Barack Obama. Each worker expands the pie and creates his own slices.

A society that puts equality ahead of freedom and prosperity will be in the end an unhappy one. As we have seen throughout history, high tax rates, high welfare benefits, and collectivist outcomes lead to deprivation and poverty. We want a fair society where everyone can realize his fullest human potential. And yes, that means some—Bill Gates, Michael Jordan, Tom Cruise, Albert Pujols, Lady Gaga, and Sergey Brin—will get a lot richer than others. There is no injustice in that.

We left until now the thrilling ending of Mr. Vonnegut's story. Just at the moment when Harrison Bergeron and the ballet dancer were wowing the audience with their expertise and breathtaking talent, as the orchestra was breaking into shockingly beautiful chords, and as the crowd's cheering reached a crescendo of joy and admiration, at that very moment, in barged the Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers. With a double-barreled shotgun, she shot the two lawbreakers dead to the floor, and equality was restored.

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About the Author

Stephen Moore is a member of the Wall Street Journal editorial board.

About the Author
Peter Ferrara is Director of Entitlement and Budget Policy at the Heartland Institute, General Counsel of the American Civil Rights Union, Senior Fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis, and Senior Policy Advisor on Entitlements and Budget Policy at the National Tax Limitation Foundation. He served in the White House Office of Policy Development under President Reagan, and as Associate Deputy Attorney General of the United States under President George H.W. Bush.