Hey 99%: Please, read some history…

By Brad Thomason, CPA

 

Writing in the middle of the 19th century, Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville took on a philosophical question which today might seem unusual.  Which do you prefer: Equality or Liberty?

My guess is that most modern folks would respond to that question with something along the lines of, “I didn’t know we had to pick.”  But it turns out, maybe we do.  And that under-appreciated fact has some significant bearing in this surprisingly tenacious national debate in which we find ourselves, between the Haves and the (supposedly) Have-Nots.

Now it’s important to clarify up front that Equality in this context doesn’t refer to equality under the law.  There’s not an assertion that one group should have some basic set of rights denied to another, nor that people should be treated differently if they do something that’s prohibited.  Justice is still to be blind, and all that.

No, Equality in the context of this philosophical question equates to “sameness.”  Do we want everyone to be the same; to have the same stake in society; to receive what everyone else receives?  Because if we do, posits Tocqueville, the only way we are going to be able to get there is by restraining some portion of our population.  Whether by native intelligence, chance opportunities or a willingness to work harder, some people naturally perform better than the crowd.  If we are going to have true Equality, we can’t have that.  Which is to say, we as a society will have to curtail Liberty; at least for some of our members.

Sitting here in the 21st century we get a Monday morning quarterback’s opportunity to look back at the social theories of the 19th century, both the right-leaning and the left.  With the benefit of having lived through 2 world wars and one long, cold one, we actually know what they could only guess at.  We, as a world, found out the hard way that Equality (aka Socialism/Communism) simply doesn’t work.  Or more fairly perhaps: if it does work, no one has actually pulled it off in practice yet.  The real life experiments run the range of sullen and persistent mediocrities (I’m thinking of you, France) to spectacular implosions (eh, Comrade?).  But no successes.  I’m not even sure we can still say it looks good on paper; that is if one looks at the paper in its entirety.

Why?  Because of the out-performers, the outliers, in a word: the 1%.  You can’t have same when everyone isn’t the same.  Sorry.  Even when the state tries to make it so by curtailing the liberties of its brightest stars, you still can’t get to a lasting and workable condition.  Why then, are we even trying?

It is not hard to understand why the 99% envies the 1%.  But simple jealousy is not a sound basis on which to ground rational public policy.  Moreover, the cost to the 99% of constraining the 1% is likely a good bit higher than they are allowing for; probably in ways that are not at once obvious.

Let’s look at who makes up the 1%.  Sure you’ve got the Gordon Geckos and the Paris Hiltons (the “villainous and the vacuous,” if you will…), but you find less glamorous versions of those characters across all demographics.  The people who are long-term residents of the 1% (i.e. let’s ignore which of the various paths got them there and just focus on the ones who manage to remain there – because remaining there is much more the accomplishment than just getting there), as a group, have more education, work more hours, accept greater responsibilities, are more likely to stay married and raise conventional families, support church and civic groups, and have lower incidence of crime and petty litigation, than just about any other statistical group.  In other words, if you were to sketch out a profile for what you would like a member of your society (much less, your neighbors) to look like, you would come up with something that looks a lot like your typical 1%er.

So is more attractive when you have less?  Certainly.  But at the individual level, should your response to that be a desire to take away from the other guy, or a desire to try to advance yourself?  Duh.  So if that’s the right response at the individual level, don’t we at least have to consider the possibility that it’s also the right response at the societal level?

The bottom line is that there will always be a 1%.  (And not because mathematically there has to be, wise-ass.)  There will always be one because there will always be a few who want to squeeze more out of life, in whatever manner, than the Average Joe.  Which doesn’t make them better than the Average Joe, nor imply that there is anything wrong with being an Average Joe.  But it is the natural condition of humanity to have a group that is willing to do more to get more.  The historical evidence is pretty irrefutable on that point.  As is the fallout which occurs when people, even the well-meaning ones, try to force that to not be the case.  Tocqueville clearly saw the harm that can come from a willingness to sacrifice Liberty for Equality.  We would do well to recognize it too.

Instead of making demands without understanding the implications of what they are asking for, proposing things which have been shown not to work and debating questions which have long been settled -at least among those who took the time to look into the matter – the 99% would be better off trying to figure out how they as individuals can join the club, rather than trying to have it disbanded.

 

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