Libertarian Economics Crudely Misguided
Jacob Britton’s “Wealth Distribution Fails to Invigorate Economy” is a five-paragraph rehashing of key libertarian talking points (The Oberlin Review, March 31, 2017). It may prove heuristically useful, then, to offer a step-by-step rebuttal of each argument to demonstrate the overwhelming inadequacy of libertarianism as a political philosophy.
Britton poses three questions: What justifies wealth redistribution, what would redistributed wealth look like and is wealth redistribution good for the economy?
Arguing on avenues paved by libertarian thinkers like Robert Nozick and Friedrich Hayek, Britton says that the state is justified in taxation only for the purpose of “essential government functions like national security and the justice system.” This implies that taxation for any purpose beyond the “essentials” is immoral and violent. Britton says any demand for state intervention in a democratic society to redistribute wealth is beyond the “essentials” and is “subjective” and “mob rule.”
This argument is nonsensical. Britton provides no criteria for distinguishing essential state activities from non-essential state activities. His two examples suggest that the state is justified only so long as it protects some set of individual rights. But can we imagine a consistent and worthy conception of individual rights that includes security from foreign invasion but does not include security from poverty?
If the question isn’t one of maximizing individual rights, but of minimizing violence, then Britton again fails: Violence is implicit in a capitalist economy where the worker is faced with the decision to accept a contract or starve. Coercion and violence always exist in capitalism. The state can work to minimize it or it can do nothing. In my view, one of those options is clearly more just than the other.
Britton’s next argument is that wealth distribution without a targeted goal of equality (e.g. the wealthiest have only 10 times as opposed to 100 times more than the poorest) is unprincipled. He says that without an explicit goal, we are left only with the implicit goal of “radical equality.” He seems to think radical equality is a bad thing, but offers no arguments for that view. I think radical equality is actually a fantastic political value, and if he wants to argue the opposite point, it would be at the very least entertaining to read his effort.
Britton next states that because we are a “supply-driven” economy, capitalist spending is better for the economy than working-class spending because capitalists invest with an eye to the “long-term.” Where to begin? Capitalists do not invest with an eye to the long term. The economy is neither clearly supply nor demand-driven: It is healthiest when demand is equal to supply, but sadly, as Karl Marx demonstrated and the latest 2008 crisis reminded us, capitalism cyclically causes demand and supply to fall out of sync with one another. Only democratic and deliberate intervention in the market maintains its functioning. Britton’s gloss of economics is so crude as to be comedic if it weren’t being used to justify the continuing domination of the many by the few.
Finally, Britton says expropriating the ruling class is not a viable strategy because the CEO of Walmart makes only $19 million a year, which redistributed to Walmart employees comes to only $9. Happily, the CEO is just a petit-bourgeois middle man. Marxists advocate for the expropriation of the capitalist, properly bourgeois class. In the case of Walmart, this is the Walton family, whose wealth cautious estimates peg at $149 billion. This comes out to about $70,952 for every Walmart worker worldwide. Sounds good to me!