At the heart of progressivism’s popularity is its ideologically driven theme that income inequality is an evil in a free society.
The 20th Century’s most memorable government leaders rose to power attacking income inequality in one form or another. Lenin attacked the old regime led by the czars. Lenin specifically overthrew its replacement government led by social democrat Alexander Kerensky because Kerensky’s socialist party tolerated income inequality. Stalin followed with his persecution of the kulaks, who were the relatively more successful, mostly Ukrainian, farmers. Lenin had set the stage for Stalin’s purges by labeling kulaks as; “bloodsuckers, vampires, plunderers of the people and profiteers, who fatten on famine.”
Hitler, and his National Socialist Party, attacked Jewish Germans for their economic success and wealth accumulation. Mao Zedong came to power promising income equality and later led the “Cultural Revolution” to enforce his vision. The Castro brothers, and their secret police, the infamous Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, sought to rid Cuba of its successful entrepreneurs, lawyers, and doctors.
Essentially the same vices motivated each of these movements: envy and coveting against hard-working, saving-oriented, successful elements of their societies. Russian peasants and sailors could be taught to vilify the Kulaks. Nazis found followers in the 1930s who resented the success of Jewish merchants and professionals. Mao, and his Red brigades, attacked anyone who wasn’t in their “masses.” Castro eliminated or drove away those who had their own farm, sugar, oil-distribution, or entertainment business.
The modern day progressives also rely on envy and coveting to justify their raising tax rates. You can seldom find a copy of the New York Times, Washington Post, or other progressive-leaning publication that does not cite income inequality as a threat to a civil society.
How can vices such as envy, coveting, or as the Irish would say, “begrudgery,” still be such core parts of the progressive agenda in light of the results of 20th Century movements that were similarly motivated? As the late economist Milton Friedman famously noted, “A society that puts equality before freedom will get neither. A society that puts freedom before equality will get a high degree of both.”
Basically, it is part of the human condition to resist conceding that someone else is more successful than you are because of different God-given talents, or because he just might be a harder worker, or he made better decisions. The story of Cain’s resentment and jealousy towards Abel, as told in various Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Scriptures, and its horrific consequences, captures how dangerous feeding off resentment can be.
Yet, it is envy, coveting, and begrudgery which are at the core of the modern day progressive belief system.
Ask modern day income redistributionists: Did you do what Kobe Bryant, Aaron Rodgers, Alexander Ovechkin, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, or even Bill Gates or Warren Buffett did to earn their wealth? I doubt they believe so. Yet, how many Americans get tricked into dehumanizing the “wealthy” sufficiently to take comfort in slapping confiscatory taxes on them?
In fact, in American culture today, our films, television shows, academia, and the media produce more ad hominem attacks against successful business people than in all the propaganda machines of the National Socialists, Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, and Red Guards’ of yesteryear.
Every student knows their fellow classmates get different grades because of differing individual intelligence, attentive ability, hard work, and the level of other distractions in students’ lives. So, you do not have a classroom ideological perspective that insists all grades must be equal and that “inequality” in grades must be eliminated.
You know that your efforts, or your classmates’ efforts, merit different rewards. You accept that as fair. Shuffling the grades randomly, or making every grade the same, is not going to encourage scholarship and overall effort.
So, too, this is why conservatives and libertarians are not impressed by ideological claims that income inequality is worrisome, except to the extent that government interferes to choose favorites.
One of Jesus’s most memorable parables dealt with three servants receiving three different sets of talents. Jesus did not suggest those talents should be re-distributed to create an equality. He was concerned with each recipient wisely using the talents he was entrusted with. If that meant the one with the most talents used his most effectively, Jesus’s parable concluded with the greatest reward for him.
One final note: When progressives discuss security or foreign threats, they often ask, “If you think Al Qaeda or the Islamic State is a threat to the U.S., then why haven’t you signed up to join the military?” Well, you should use this rhetorical approach when debating or discussing the “income inequality” issue with a progressive. Why don’t they volunteer more of their personal income to the government than they are legally coerced to pay?
If the progressive thinks income inequality is a threat that requires action, then I ask, “Why not begin with yourself and redistribute your income? Your income is wildly unequal to the Third World poor or even the poorest Americans.” Of course, the progressive is always reluctant to acknowledge that government cannot give anything to anyone without first seizing someone’s wages or earnings. And the progressives seldom volunteer their own resources.
- Historically, the worst demagogues demonize a group they don’t like, such as “the rich,” for the purposes of political gain and power lust.
- Hypocritically, may progressives advocate government income redistribution in the name of “equality” but rarely run their own lives that way or spend their own money in accordance with the policies they support.
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ABOUT RON ROBINSON
Ron Robinson has served as Young America’s Foundation’s president for more than three decades.
EDITORS NOTE: The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) is proud to partner with Young America’s Foundation (YAF) to produce “Clichés of Progressivism,” a series of insightful commentaries covering topics of free enterprise, income inequality, and limited government. See the index of the published chapters here. The author is president of Young America’s Foundation.