It usually begins with Ayn Rand
Jonathan Chait’s essay on Ayn Rand is worth a read. Given the rise of the tea party movement, his basic point – that Rand’s influence has led to an over-emphasis on a morally absolutist view of redistribution – is pretty relevant. My own view is that Rand is best understood as a product of a very specific political and cultural context; if her philosophy and subsequent influence overstates the role of individual merit in determining success, it’s probably because the mid-century consensus was weighted too far in the other direction. In other words, I think we can appreciate Rand as a necessary corrective to an overly-deterministic view of individual achievement without subscribing to her crazy philosophy. Incidentally, Brian Doherty’s excellent history of the libertarian movement has a good survey of Rand’s peculiar cultural influence.
If I was to summarize my own comprehensive case against redistribution (which is far from an absolutist one, by the way), I would probably emphasize three things:
1) The empirical case against redistribution. Regardless of the moral or philosophical merits of wealth transfers, people tend to work less when they’re heavily taxed. Redistributive policies are also frequently inefficient.
2) The prudential case against redistribution. Rectifying structural inequities through redistribution is an inexact science. Moreover, fiddling with an economic system that has acquired (and retains) substantial reservoirs of cultural and institutional legitimacy may have unintended consequences.
3.) Finally, the moral case against redistribution. Unlike Rand, I do not think people are entitled to keep every cent of their earnings. But – given the importance of individual achievement – I do think you should keep quite a lot of what you make.
Obviously, none of this is very original. But it’s worth remembering in light of the clownish antics of Rick Santelli and the more extreme tea party activists.