Guest post by Joel D. Hirst
We hear it a lot more these days: the word inequality. It has become the panacea by which people — both rich and poor, powerful and weak — pretend to express their solidarity with those less fortunate. “It’s not about money” they insist; “it’s really about its distribution. There’s plenty for everybody,” they go on, “if only there were just less inequality” — the word spoken with sufficient heartfelt drawl that the assertion leaves no room for challenge.
They then turn their lazy eyes upon the “villain” — capitalism and the capitalist countries — ostensibly because we have more. They rail against corporate pay; the desperately poor making common cause with the accidentally rich in denouncing tycoons and masters of industry or those who have built for themselves great wealth. They lobby for central plans which — at the point of a gun — take from some to give to others; with the only real beneficiaries being the intermediaries of this theft.
The truth is that this analysis is the result of tunnel vision and a stunning lack of retrospection.
I recently returned from a trip to Vienna, where I spent the evenings wandering through the old parts of town; passing in front of the palaces and churches and mansions of the imperial overlords of old: massive structures of arrogant opulence built not by those who created but by those who believed that their condition of birth gave them the right to take. Wealth seized for the few at the expense of the masses. That world was a world of inequality.
Most of us forget that in the past wealth was usually obtained by the subjugation of others or the theft of their goods. All the elites in the empires of old built their fortunes by taking land, enslaving peasants, and sacking the bounty of wealthy neighbours. Inequality was said to be ordained by God and preserved by blue blood and one’s condition at birth.
Capitalism changed all this.
Now these old places, once the frolicking ground of privilege, are museums and tourist attractions for the pleasure of those of us who in the past would have been vassals; men who have finally become lords not of others but of our own destinies, empowered by capitalism.
Capitalism has allowed people to become tremendously wealthy simply through dedicated service to others. Figure out what they like to eat, what they like to read, what they like to wear, what they like to listen to, how they prefer to spend their vacations, and fulfil their wishes with your best and most ingenious efforts. Make their lives easier and they will gladly and freely hand you tremendous wealth.
This simple idea spurred the industrial revolution which brought the greatest advancement in terms of quality of life in human history. It heralded the building of new empires — empires of the mind that were as powerful and as fragile as each subsequent idea. Empires that required only the voluntary participation of others, built upon service to them. And it created a bounty producing the greatest middle class the world has ever known.
This is the capitalism that those who complain about inequality attack. Not understanding the source of equality, and wealth, they pull a bait and switch by attacking the solution as the problem. And worse, so much worse, those who seek political power to rule — not economic power by service — use the chimera of inequality to justify their power grab. And in doing so, they create yet another nobility. Their cynicism knowing no bounds, they call for a new class of overlords who seek to rule by controlling those “capitalists” who produce. And not content to simply control, they demand the consent of the victim; those men of the mind who are forced to acknowledge that this control is in fact for the public good, because it is the public that must be protected against them — against those who serve.
To be sure this does not mean that things are going swimmingly. The increasingly oligarchical nature of western society, as the economic becomes commingled with the political, is creating such inequalities that it is threatening to return the world to a time of lords and serfs, of nobles and vassals. In other countries the process has already been completed, and the poor have again been permanently cemented in their misery.
Now is the time for the men of courage to stand and carefully explain that the solution to this challenge, like most solutions, comes not from what those who seek political power say, but instead from principles firmly grounded in history and economics. The solution comes not with less capitalism, but with greater freedom, greater creativity, and greater opportunity which are sure to create greater prosperity.
But in order for this to work, we must trust the spontaneous order that governs human interactions and believe that the disaggregated benefits of people seeking to prosper by serving each other will lead to the greater good.
And for those of us who object to falling prey to the chimera of inequality, let it be known that it is not because we are children of privilege. We do not hate the poor. We do not idolise the oligarchies, old or new. It is in fact for the opposite reason that we dissent. Those of us who are not men with loud last names and long lineages know the only way to our own advancement and the alleviation of poverty, and most often the only way we can defend ourselves is our stalwart adherence to the values and institutions of a free society.
Because it is we, more than anybody else, who have everything to lose if we do not.
Joel D. Hirst is a political analyst, activist and novelist, author of the novel The Lieutenant of San Porfirio (and its Spanish version El Teniente de San Porfirio: Cronica de una Revolucion Bolivariana), and the non-fiction The Alba: Inside Venezuela's Bolivarian Alliance.
He holds a master's degree from Brandeis University and is the cofounder of a consulting firm in Washington, DC. Joel has worked with USAID and World Vision in several countries, including Pakistan, Chad, Kosovo, Honduras, Nicaragua, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Uganda.
This article first appeared at Joel’s blog Blog.JoelHirst.com, and has been reposted from the blog of the PanamPost.