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One of my first columns for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette was on the dumbest ideas of the 20th century. I rounded up the usual suspects--Prohibition, public housing projects, the Smoot-Hawley tariff, etc.--and Rush Limbaugh ended up doing one of his radio segments on it (or so I was told, since I didn't hear it).

Even though we're only two decades in, we might have already found the dumbest idea of the 21st century--the Bolshevik "wealth tax" proposed by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

Such a tax would violate the Constitution on at least two grounds--Article One's prohibition against direct taxes and the logic of the 16th Amendment (which permits a tax on income but not on existent wealth and assets). It would make hardly a dent in the massive federal debt and cover only a tiny fraction of the cost of Sanders' and Warren's extravagant spending proposals (which would blow that debt to point-of-no-return levels). In the unlikely event it was ever implemented, it would almost certainly shut down capital investment, crash the stock market, and bring an abrupt end to the impressive economic growth and job creation we have been enjoying.

Other than that, it's a wonderful idea. And also a useful window through which to view how the radical left persistently misunderstands the process of wealth creation and misconceives the purposes of government.

On the last point, as Thomas Jefferson famously put it in an early draft of the Declaration of Independence, the primary obligation of government is to protect "life, liberty, and the pursuit of property." James Madison gave a more blunt interpretation of the linkage between those values in Federalist 10 when he noted that the protection of the unequal "faculty" for the acquisition of property was "the first object of government," which is another way of saying that the purpose of the regime Madison played such an outsized role in establishing was to prevent precisely what Sanders and Warren are proposing (the capricious and arbitrary confiscation of property by the state, cheered on by the mob).

As the founders emphasized, men and women in a free society have differing abilities and character and ambitions, out of which "natural inequalities" emerge that good government is obliged to protect.

If government can at any point, backed by the approval of an inherently ephemeral majority, confiscate as much of your wealth and property as it wishes, then everyone's wealth and property are left unprotected, not just those with the most to confiscate. And when the confiscation of the moment proves insufficient to the scope of the ambitions, as Warren and Sanders takings inevitably would, you would, with the principle now accepted and precedent established, have to go back to the well again and again.

In the Soviet Union, the term "kulak" initially meant (somewhat incongruously) "wealthy peasant" but, as the confiscation of grain and livestock continued, it was quickly redefined to mean any peasant with more than one cow.

Once the rich are targeted by the state, and a moral rationale for taking their riches put forth, the definition of "rich" becomes expediently elastic.

The Warren-Sanders confiscation scheme also nicely reminds us that socialism, incapable of actually creating any wealth, can only redistribute that which capitalism creates, with those cutting up the pie based on some abstract notion of "social justice" seldom having any understanding of where it came from.

At the heart of that ignorance is the fundamental flaw of the left--the belief that wealth creation constitutes a zero-sum game in which the wealthy few (Sanders and Warren's perfidious billionaires) can become such only by impoverishing countless others.

In reality, people in a market economy don't get rich by fraud or deceit but by providing goods and services that other people want. And they want them because they believe they will make their lives happier. There are actually few legal ways to get rich under such circumstances that don't require improving the lives of other people in all kinds of ways in the process.

A writer of mystery novels can become, for instance, fabulously wealthy but the acquisition of that wealth harms no one; to the contrary, it enriches the lives of book-buyers and book-sellers and all kinds of others less directly affected along the way. And were that writer to suddenly suffer some form of writer's block and publish no more (thereby failing to add to his wealth), others would not suddenly be enriched as a result.

The demagogue (of the Warren and Sanders variety) arouses the mob by preying on resentment and envy, but the mob cannot create; it can only plunder and wreck that which others have built.

When done spontaneously during a riot in the streets such theft is called looting; when proposed as a tax on wealth by opportunistic politicians seeking to buy votes with other people's money, it is called compassion.

For neo-Bolsheviks like Sanders and Warren, wealth belongs first and foremost to the state, with that left in the hands of private individuals a purely contingent concession.

And when such politicians claim the right to seize wealth, they are also claiming the right to determine how much everyone can have.

------------v------------

Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.

Editorial on 02/24/2020

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