Senator Webb and Envy (2007 Feb)

by Barry A. Liebling

After President Bush gave his State of the Union Address in January 2007, Senator Jim Webb delivered the official response of the Democratic Party – which had been scrutinized and blessed in advance by top Democratic strategists.

Senator Webb focused his remarks on two areas, the economy and foreign policy.

On the topic of the economy he chanted familiar leftist themes that are calculated to inflame hostile emotions and excuse covetous aggression. Because his themes have been heard so many times before Senator Webb did not need to spell out their assumptions and implications. A few terse phrases are sufficient to assure that the essence of his messages get through.

Significantly, omitting the assumptions and implications of the messages is a deliberate tactic. If Senator Webb can conceal what underlies his remarks he might avoid being recognized as giving license to outrageous behavior.

Consider three assertions made by the Senator, what they imply, and how they should be answered.

First, Senator Webb describes wealth, not as belonging to individuals, but as residing in a gigantic pool where in theory everyone is entitled to an equal share. To the extent that some people wind up with more than others there is a problem that needs fixing. He refers to America of 100 years ago as a place where “Robber barons were unapologetically raking in a huge percentage of the national wealth.” He says that today “Wages and salaries for our workers are at all-time lows as a percentage of national wealth.”

Notice that the term “national wealth” suggests that it is owned by society. There is no acknowledgment of the importance of private property. The fact that the “robber barons” of the past and successful people today created wealth counts for nothing to Webb. He is busy lamenting that the “national wealth” is not evenly distributed.

The answer to Webb’s collectivist assertion is that in a free society every individual owns his or her life and has a right to private property. This is in contrast to totalitarian countries such as the former Soviet Union and North Korea where all property – and all people – belong to the state.

Second, the Senator is saying that those who are more economically successful do not deserve to keep their wealth. He is suggesting that if you see people who are making enormous amounts of money you are right to be bitterly jealous, justified in coveting their possessions, and excused for acting out of envy.

Webb insinuates that there are two classes of people – regular people who deserve more and those with too much money who should be ashamed of themselves. He says “It’s almost as if we are living in two different countries,” and “The middle class … is losing its place at the table,” and “We should measure the health of our society not at its apex, but at its base.”

Bear in mind that there is more than one way to reduce the disparity between regular people and the rich. It is not necessary to make anyone better off. Webb is not so interested in enhancing the absolute outcomes of his pals as in assuring that they have a larger percent of the pie. Confiscating the wealth of the more successful takes them down a peg, reduces the size of the pie, and makes the less successful person’s income proportionately more of the “national wealth.”

Note that when Senator Webb is intimating that the most successful people have too much wealth he is referring to those who came by their money honestly. He cannot be talking about villains who stole or swindled their fortune. Thieves should not be taken down a notch; they should lose everything. You do not reduce the income of a thief; you eliminate it.

The answer to Webb’s assertion that income disparities are problematic is that he is focusing on the wrong measure. What is really crucial is how people achieve their income. Those who obtain it honestly and trade by mutual consent deserve all of it. Those who use force or fraud should be stopped and should not profit at all. The percent of the total that anyone has is irrelevant.

Third, Senator Webb is hinting that he and his Democratic colleagues will use government coercion to take wealth away from those who have “too much” and will enact legislation to assure they do not acquire so much in the first place. Notice that there is a qualitative difference between an academic or journalist who calls for “greater equality” and a United States Senator who can threaten with the force of government at his disposal.

Webb is not shy about his partisanship when he says, “we’re working to get the right things done, for the right people.” The message is the “right people” – the class of people he favors – can expect legislative action that will penalize those who are not in favor.

The answer to the Senator is that the government has a legitimate monopoly on the use of force. In a free society the government’s mission is to protect individual rights, to assure that people deal with one another honestly and by mutual consent. Using the power of the government to confiscate and redistribute wealth should be recognized as fundamentally immoral.

Of course, it is possible that Senator Webb is spouting redistributionist positions to pander to voters who are consumed by envy. If so, the Senator’s bluster may not lead to significant actions. Alternatively, if Senator Webb sincerely believes the leftist party-line his potential for causing mischief is vast.

*** See other entries at in “Monthly Columns.” ***

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