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The Reactionary Utopian (classic)
May 25, 2012

By Permission or by Right?
A classic by Joseph Sobran
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The philosopher John Rawls died recently. This Harvard professor had provided liberalism with one of its brainiest rationales in his book A Theory of Justice. I’ve never read it through, though I’ve read many of the arguments it inspired. Most of them center on Rawls’s thesis that inequalities of wealth should be permitted only if they benefit the poorest as well as the richest.

Liberals love that idea because of its totalitarian premise that we own our wealth only by “permission.” Whose permission? The state’s, of course. For them it goes without saying that the state should decide who gets what.

They don’t notice, or don’t care, that equality of wealth can only be achieved through enormous inequalities of power. A few men must be given more power than others — which inevitably means coercive power over those others. As Lenin said, in politics the question is who does what to whom. If you own something only by the state’s permission, you don’t really own it.

Yes, yes, I realize that Bill Gates is far richer than I am. It bothers me not at all, because he has no power over me. I can refuse to buy his products by exercising my own free will. But even the pettiest state official — a bullying policeman, for example — does have power to coerce me. I have no choice about doing business with the state. It can take my money without giving me anything in return. And after all, what can it give me? It produces nothing.

But can’t the rich use their money to buy power — by influencing elections? Certainly. But the problem is not the money, but the state. It’s usually corrupt and uses its power corruptly. If there were no state, or if it could be strictly limited to a few powers, it couldn’t become an instrument of the rich. “The way to get rid of corruption in high places,” the libertarian Frank Chodorov said, “is to get rid of high places.”

When there are no effective limits on the state, all property is ultimately state property. We keep only what the state allows us to keep.

Who was the richest man who ever lived? No, it wasn’t Gates, or John D. Rockefeller. You could make a good case that it was Joseph Stalin, who effectively owned everything in an empire spanning eleven time zones, including the lives of his subjects, whom he killed by the millions. Or maybe it was Mao Zedong, who owned a billion subjects (and also killed them freely).

Both Stalin and Mao ruled regimes dedicated to making everyone equal by abolishing private property. Obviously they created monstrous inequalities of power, from which nobody was safe. But they also thereby created monstrous inequalities of wealth. When they alone could dispose of their countries’ wealth, it is absurd to say that their subjects were “equal,” except in uniform misery.

The U.S. income tax was originally aimed only at capitalists with large incomes. Soon it was also levied on people with modest incomes; and as the currency was inflated, ordinary working people were automatically pushed into higher tax brackets. Today the American state (there is really only one, the “free and independent states” having been abolished long ago) consumes roughly half our income.

In the late 1970s, “supply-side” economists argued that high tax rates were self-defeating: beyond a certain point, they actually diminish the state’s revenues. Liberals ridiculed this argument as “ideological,” though it’s self-evident that if you confiscate too much of what people produce, they will produce less. (Even the Soviet Union was forced to allow people to make profits.)

What the supply-siders didn’t fully understand was that the liberals didn’t just want the revenues; they wanted power. Tyrants don’t mind impoverishing their subjects if it enhances their own power. Communist regimes like Cuba’s and North Korea’s still bear witness to that.

Luckily, though the U.S. Constitution is long gone, our rulers are still subject to political pressure which limits its power to take our wealth. The two political parties may lose elections if they depress economic growth too noticeably. So even liberals have had to make concessions to private property, especially since the collapse of the great European socialist regimes that liberals used to hail as the wave of the future.

But we won’t recover our freedom until the state is forced to admit that we own our wealth not by its permission, but by our own right.

The Reactionary Utopian archives

Copyright © 2012 by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. All rights reserved. This column was published originally by Griffin Internet Syndicate on December 26, 2002.

Joe Sobran was an author and a syndicated columnist. See bio and archives of some of his columns.

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