Of the many – (What number? 20? 25? I’ve lost count) – reviews that I’ve read so far of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, my favorite is written by my colleague Garett Jones for Reason.com. A slice:
That’s why I propose the creation of the Tenth Commandment Club. The tenth commandment—”You shall not covet”—is a foundation of social peace. The Nobel Laureate economist Vernon Smith noted the tenth commandment along with the eighth (you shall not steal) in his Nobel toast, saying that they “provide the property right foundations for markets, and warned that petty distributional jealousy must not be allowed to destroy” those foundations. If academics, pundits, and columnists would avowedly reject covetousness, would openly reject comparisons between the average (extremely fortunate) American and the average billionaire, would mock people who claimed that frugal billionaires are a systematic threat to modern life, then soon our time could be spent discussing policy issues that really matter.
People who are genuinely materially desperate aren’t the issue here. The Tenth Commandment Club has no qualms with a Jean Valjean stealing bread to feed his family. But the implicit emphasis of Piketty’s Capital is with comparing the 1 percent (or 0.01 percent) to the typical person living in the G-7, a person who is, on average, more fortunate than most of the world’s population and more materially fortunate than almost anyone living in the 19th-century novels that Piketty so loves to discuss. To paraphrase an old P.J. O’Rourke joke, just think about Mr. Darcy’s visits to the dentist.
By all means, use the tools and methods of science to analyze the sources and likely consequences of income differences. Document the history. Predict the future. But what Garett correctly calls the covetousness that people on the political left now champion and encourage and hail as an appropriate motive for policy-making is simply appalling.