“The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance,” was how John Philpot Curran put it. Sure enough, but there are different kinds of vigilance. My experience suggests that one of the most important forms in a relatively free society such as ours is to unfailingly meet arguments promoting the violation of human freedom.
I thought of this when I came across the book by Cornell University economist Robert H. Frank and Duke University political scientist Philip J. Cook, The Winner-Take-All Society (The Free Press, 1995). The authors argue that in many fields of work we sometimes encounter what they see as a disturbing phenomenon: a few superstars taking all the money, leaving everyone else to fight for the leftovers. As they put it, “The incomes of the top 1 percent more than doubled in real terms between 1979 and 1989, a period during which the median income was roughly stable and in which the bottom 20 percent of earners saw their incomes actually fall by 10 percent.” Because of this Frank and Cook recommend—you guessed it—a drastic expansion of the system of progressive taxation.
If Michael Jordan, Tom Brokaw, John Grisham, John Silber, Cindy Crawford, Larry King, Sandra Bullock, Rush Limbaugh, George Will, Barbara Cartright, Anne Rice, Michael Jackson, and Arnold Schwarzenegger take home so much of the available money in their respective professions, we must take action. We must take the money from them. This will discourage super-stardom and allow us to redistribute their ill-gotten gain to others—whom we did not elect, by our choices in the free market, to support when spending our money. Politicians and bureaucrats would be authorized, if these authors had their way, to correct our errors, to eliminate this egregious “market failure.”
Why are unequal incomes regarded as a market failure? Because the top achievers aren’t really more deserving than those bunched below them. Surely Rush Limbaugh’s radio rap isn’t so much better than that of the typical local talk show host. Michael Jordan plays superbly, but not well enough to justify all the endorsement contracts he receives. Michael Jackson . . . well, you get the idea, don’t you?
I confess that this resonates with me a bit. I am a small-time writer: my 12 books haven’t brought in enough to pay for the paper on which they are printed, my columns earn me a pittance compared to what George Will collects, and so on and on. I am envious, at times, of all those who live in the big cities and get exposure on the Sunday morning news programs. Even in my field of philosophy, there are stars whose popularity—manifest in their repeated appearance on the pages of not only the most prominent and prestigious scholarly journals but also of national magazines and Sunday book review supplements—is way out of proportion to their talent and achievement. They are where they are in large measure from bad habit, luck, or knowing the right people— with their superior achievements probably accounting for a fraction of the rewards they reap, not just in money earned but in influence they peddle.
But so what? How dare anyone suggest that this is something that others ought to redress through coercive government intervention? It is an outrage.
I don’t know if the scholars who propose this are simply morally obtuse or actually envious of the fame and fortune of a few others in their field—perhaps Nobel Prize winners Gary Becker or Milton Friedman in economics, for example. Their motivation doesn’t make any difference. What is clear is that they are proposing yet another phony excuse to increase the power of the State over the lives of citizens in a supposedly free society.
It is perhaps worth noting that the complaint voiced by Frank and Cook applies to an era of American economic history that is hardly characterized by a national economic policy of laissez faire. Quite the contrary—our national economic system has become ever more managed by government. Regulation, taxation, nationalization of land, control of wages and labor relations, welfare, and the rest have continually expanded, both at the state and national levels. At most there has been some decrease in the rate of the growth of government interference. Even the current Republican Congress has not managed to reduce government regulation and spending, but only stem proposed increases in some areas.
But even if it were true that a bona fide free market had spawned something akin to the winner-take-all society, so what? If I wish to ogle two or three supermodels and thus increase their wealth beyond what their competitors earn, that is my business. My earnings, my time, and my good or ill fortune are for me to distribute to willing takers, not for the politicians and bureaucrats whose power Frank and Cook are so eager to rationalize.
Frank and Cook can, of course, do some good by letting us know about the trends of which they write. But their proposed remedy is wrong and should be rejected by anyone concerned for the future of our society. Liberty does require eternal vigilance, especially when confronting sophists who would arm the statists with greater power over us.
—Tibor R. Machan
Dr. Machan is Professor of Philosophy at Auburn University, Alabama. His book, Private Rights and Public Illusions, sponsored by the Independent Institute of Oakland, California, was recently published by Transaction Books.