Sorry, Ayn Rand. Your fiction has been exposed as, well, fiction.
By Lynn Stuart Parramore
April 27, 2014
Libertarians have always been flummoxed by inequality, tending either to deny that it’s a problem or pretend that the invisible hand of the market will wave a magic wand to cure it. Then everybody gets properly rewarded for what he or she does with brains and effort, and things are peachy keen.
Except that they aren’t, as exhaustively demonstrated by French economist Thomas Piketty, whose 700-page treatise on the long-term trends in inequality, Capital In the 21st Century, has blown up libertarian fantasies one by one.
To understand the libertarian view of inequality, let’s turn to Milton Friedman, one of America’s most famous and influential makers of free market mythology. Friedman decreed that economic policy should focus on freedom, and not equality.
If we could do that, he promised, we’d not only get freedom and efficiency, but more equality as a natural byproduct. Libertarians who took the lessons from his books, like Capitalism and Freedom (1962) and Free to Choose (1980), bought into the notion that capitalism naturally led to less inequality.
Basically, the lessons boiled down to this: Some degree of inequality is both unavoidable and desirable in a free market, and income inequality in the U.S. isn’t very pronounced, anyway. Libertarians starting with these ideas tend to reject any government intervention meant to decrease inequality, claiming that such plans make people lazy and that they don’t work, anyway. Things like progressive income taxes, minimum wage laws and social safety nets make most libertarians very unhappy.
Uncle Milty put it like this:
“A society that puts equality—in the sense of equality of outcome—ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality nor freedom.… On the other hand, a society that puts freedom first will, as a happy by-product, end up with both greater freedom and greater equality.”
Well, that turns out to be spectacularly, jaw-droppingly, head-scratchingly wrong. The U.S. is now a stunningly unequal society, with wealth piling up at the top so fast that an entire movement, Occupy Wall Street, sprung up to decry it with the catchphrase “We are the 99%.”