I’m increasingly dissatisfied with programs to redistribute
wealth from the rich to the poor. To be sure, redistribution
can increase aggregate happiness and opportunity, since an extra dollar
makes much more of a difference to a poor person than to a rich one.
Also, there is some evidence that inequality
reduces health and longevity (regardless of the total amount of
wealth in the society). Nevertheless, I think that aiming for more
redistribution is politically foolish, since a majority of American
households are now wealthy enough that they do not imagine themselves
as the beneficiaries. Even some of those who might benefit from redistribution
consider it undesirable. It’s coercive; it’s divisive; it may be economically
inefficient (at best, it’s zero-sum); and it makes the recipient feel
beholden and dependent.
The alternative would be to increase people’s opportunities
to become creators of wealth. There could be two parts to
this agenda. First, we could strive to lower barriers to entrepreneurship.
This is a Republican goal, identified especially with Jack Kemp (who
has done good work). The problem is the standard Republican solution,
which boils down to tax cuts. Cutting taxes does nothing to increase
opportunities for people who don’t have much money to start with.
an organization of business executives, is working on much more serious
ideas for expanding real economic opportunity. They say:
"Equality of opportunity" is the notion that all Americans
should get a genuine chance to make the most of their talents and
efforts to benefit themselves, their families, and their communities.
It requires that children have the educational opportunities that
allow them to realize their own potential. It requires fair access
to job markets, capital markets, and the home market. It requires
that government lighten the burden of those who are just beginning
to build up their earning power and their savings. It requires a
system in which people can bounce back from failure, so that they’re
not afraid to take risks and to invest in themselves in the first
While helping more everyone to contribute to the market economy,
we could also increase citizens’ opportunities to make public
goods. To do this, we would encourage public service by expanding
(rather than brutally cutting) Americorps; by opening new routes into
professions such as teaching and nursing; and by making such professions
more desirable and satisfying. Indeed, we would encourage all
the learned professions to recover their civic and public purposes.
And we would increase public contributions to the government itself,
for instance by asking citizens to collect GIS data on environmental
issues, or by assigning important regulatory issues to citizen juries.
Not all public goods are created in the state sector. For example,
as I’ve argued in several articles (for instance, this
one), there is a "digital commons" composed of the protocols,
the open-source software, and the free webpages of the Internet. The
Internet was built by volunteers, including teenagers and poor immigrants;
by nonprofit associations; by the government; by profit-seeking entrepreneurs;
and my major corporations. All these players were doing what Harry
Boyte calls "public work,"
that is, working together to build an accessible public good. The
Internet commons is now in grave danger from several directions (spammers
and virus-makers, corporate monopolists, government censors). However,
groups such as the New
America Foundation have lots of concrete ideas about how to expand
and protect the Internet and other public assets.
Putting all these policies together, we could have a movement
whose goal would be to make everyone a creator of wealth.