Spread the Wealth Around

In his 1875 work, Critique of the Gotha Program, Karl Marx, the co-founder of Communism, popularized a phrase first coined by French socialist Louis Blanc: From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. The phrase summarizes the principles that, under a communist system, every person should contribute to society to the best of their ability and consume from society in proportion to their needs, regardless of how much they have contributed. While this might be a tad counterintuitive to those of us raised in a capitalist society where the idea is to build personal wealth and live a good life, Marx explained that the arrangement described in that slogan would be possible due to the abundance of goods and services that a developed communist society will produce; the idea is that there will be enough to satisfy everyone's needs.

This is the part of Marxism that looks good on paper. It would be wonderful if you could benefit according to your needs rather than according to you ability and, yes, luck. It would be a beautiful thing to reach out and tap into the abundance of society and not have to worry about paying it back. Imagine all that extra free time you would have, not being responsible for your own life. Pity it doesn't work. You just have to look at Russia to see how badly it doesn't work. Marxism is counterproductive and it is very expensive. On a practical level, it bankrupts states sooner or later because there is always more output of wealth in terms of services and benefits than there is income. It isn't sustainable once market realities rear their ugly heads. It fails on a social level as well because it relies on the idea that everyone will pay some centrally-determined “fair share”—it would be unpatriotic not to—and that the wealth thus put into the system will be properly redistributed to each according to their need. In other words, Marx and his fellow travelers wanted to spread the wealth around.

Where have we heard those words before, that it is patriotic to pay high taxes, that everyone needs to pay their “fair share” and that a certain candidate, speaking to generally supportive voters in Holland, Ohio, wants to spread the wealth around.

Barack Obama's visit to the Lincoln Green section of Holland was supposed to be a meet and greet with local residents along Shrewsbury Street. He took pictures, advised overly frisky dogs not to do anything in front of the cameras and got a chance to speak to a few people who like his message, especially about the economy, and to pitch an undecided or two. It was a real man-of-the-people moment, right up until he ran into a plumber who complained: "I'm being taxed more and more for fulfilling the American dream,” referring in part to Obama's planned tax hike on anyone making more than $200,000.

Obama's response: “It's not that I want to punish your success. I just want to make sure that everyone behind you, that they have a chance at success, too. I want to spread the wealth around.”

So, let me get this straight: This plumber has worked hard and built a small business for himself and his family and already suffers under high taxes because he has to pay his “fair share.” Now we have a candidate come along and tell him that the confiscatory taxes he is proposing on “the rich” are not really meant to punish him for being a fine, successful businessman. Rather, those taxes are meant to spread the wealth around in order to help those who have not had his opportunities. What does that mean, exactly? Obama didn't elaborate, preferring to repeat his standard talking point regarding a tax break for 95% of all Americans (which would be tough to do given that only about 50% of all Americans actually pay taxes). Then it was time to get back into the limo and, as he told the man (who was not at all pleased with Obama's stock answer), prepare for the debate.

From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. Spread the wealth around. Marx would have been so proud.