Income inequality is much in the news today. Regular patrons of the Cafe know that I find concern over income inequality itself – which is to say, envy – to be corrosive of a civil society. (I have no problem, of course, with concern over policies rigged to ‘distribute’ privileges and booty to those who do not deserve them; I object to such policies. I object to such policies whether they enlarge or reduce differences in incomes.) Few popular concerns strike me as being as childish, misguided, unfounded, and dangerous as concerns over differences in relative incomes earned in market-oriented economies.
I have a question about all the furor over income inequality: Why do the professors and pundits who worry most about income envy erupting into civil strife spend so much of their time and effort stoking the flames of income envy by constantly complaining about income inequality? Do these professors and pundits not worry that their incessant protestations might themselves spark the very sort of civil strife that they claim to abhor and seek to avoid?
Fortunately, most Americans do not (yet) care as much about income differences as do the hand-wringing professors and pundits – a fact that itself casts doubt on the prescience and observational skills of those professors and pundits who prattle on endlessly about the dangers of income inequality. In a modern, prosperous market-oriented economy, even stupendously large differences in monetary incomes or in wealth are not so visible to the naked eye – another fact that casts doubt on the underlying theory of those who worry about income envy erupting into social strife.
But given that Deirdre McCloskey is correct in noting that the way we talk and what we say matters, at least as strong a case can be made for legislation to forcibly shut the mouths and freeze the keyboards of those who scream about the dangers of income inequality as can be made for legislation to forcibly take from ‘the rich’ in order to give to ‘the poor.’
Of course, I would emphatically oppose any such legislation to stop the inequality-mongers from peddling their antisocial endorsements of envy-as-public-policy. I would fight to the death to prevent such legislation. Any case made to forcibly silence such protests would be incredibly weak and immoral. But if you are among those who believe in the use of force to ‘redistribute’ incomes in order to prevent social uprisings that (you also believe) are inevitable if the People come to envy the incomes of ‘the rich,” then on what principled grounds do you stand to rule out shutting the mouths and freezing the keyboards of those who are constantly screaming to the general public that they – the public – should be more envious of the incomes of ‘the rich’ and more angry about income inequality? Your case for forcible ‘redistribution’ is also incredibly weak and immoral.