Redistribute the Wealth

by Lee Istrail | 10/24/97 5:00am

Many criticize welfare and other social spending programs as ineffective undertakings which provide all the wrong incentives for our nation's poor. Debates rage about the appropriate levels of spending, and the success rates of various programs, yet very rarely does one witness an absurd, wholesale refutation of such policies' social value. Sadly, that is what Abiola Lapite would have us believe. ["Inequality of Wealth is a Force for Good," Oct. 22, The Dartmouth.]

I will not address such controversial issues as, "how socially mobile is our class structure?" and "what is the appropriate form of welfare?" because Lapite's argument constitutes an attempt to deny the most basic worth of redistributive policies in general. He audaciously asserts, "Not only do I believe that there is nothing wrong with income inequality, per se, I think that the world can never have too much of it..."

Lapite argues that widening income distribution is a telltale sign that the achievements of the most successful individuals in society are being rewarded ever-more handsomely, as compared to the "lazier and less reflective individuals" in the U.S. Taxing the well-off and distributing benefits to the poorest would then be an unfair "wealth tax," in effect a punishment for material success.

First of all, to label the poor as "lazy" represents a myopic view that hardly needs refutation. As Ivy-league students and probable future successes in life, we understandably tout the value of hard work, yet at what point can one become so arrogant as to broadly deplore the "laziness of the common poor person"?

Secondly, a widening income distribution may result from any number of factors other than an increased return to being successful, such as a tax-break favoring the wealthy (such as the capital-gains, estate, and other cuts from the last "Taxpayer Relief Act.") One could argue that such tax-breaks generally result from lobbying by wealthy constituencies, but this still provides more evidence for a well-established political truth, rather than providing evidence that the wealthy are even more resourceful than before.

Quite apart from the issue of the personal qualities of the poor, there are widely-recognized social benefits to government redistributive policies. The first argument for social spending is that it relieves the burden on the poor, many of whom are not responsible for their poverty but merely "unlucky." Since it is far too difficult to categorize the poor by the cause of each person's poverty, welfare is largely an "all-poor-or-no-poor" proposition. This should not be a heartless, laissez-faire society.

If one is unconvinced by this argument, there is the utilitarian justification for welfare programs; without social spending, urban unrest would increase, potentially threatening the stability of society and the security of wealthier peoples' lives and assets. This is the "heartless" justification for welfare, but sometimes it's all that can convince someone like Lapite that redistribution is important to the U.S.

A third argument for social spending hinges on the premise that the accumulation of wealth is a volatile thing, such that wealthy citizens may, through a temporary lapse of "foresight," become bankrupt and join the ranks of the poor. Since poverty can befall even the wealthy in the future, it pays to create a social safety net which can help all poor in their time of need.

These benefits of poverty are crucial to society, and serve to bring us closer together as a nation even though they may divide us ideologically. Social spending helps stabilize society, even as we often strive to be such ardent individualists as Lapite.

Finally, Lapite adds another characteristic to his description of the successful individual, that of "ruthlessness." If such individualistic viciousness is a prerequisite for success, one must wonder how much human compassion Lapite is willing to trade on his way to the top. I sincerely hope that a Dartmouth education teaches students to balance purely individualistic aims with social compassion, and enables us to become the responsible citizens (and corporate CEO's) of tomorrow.