The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 14, 2018

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Last Things: Redistributionism
James V. Schall, S.J. - 11/10/08
large and small apples

The readers of the Prince have long attested to the charm of the book. They smiled at its advice to the shrewd tyrant who seeks successfully to retain the power that he has acquired, however he acquired it. The first thing he should do, after attending to less pleasant, but “necessary,” affairs, is to encourage talent. He should incite citizens to “go peaceably about their business” whatever it is that occupies them. Aristotle did not give this advice to the tyrant. Rather, citing a famous tyrant, he held that the tyrant should prevent anything exceptional from showing its head. The talented were potential rivals. “Lop off their heads,” as the analogy to the grain fields went.

Machiavelli, however, in a passage we would least expect from him, thinks that, under the tyrant, “One man should not be afraid of improving his possessions, lest they be taken away from him, or another deterred by high taxes from starting a new business. Rather the prince should be ready to reward men who want to do these things and anyone who wants in any way to increase the prosperity of his city or his state” (21). Though perhaps self-serving, this advice is not bad. It is advice that Hobbes will later take up into modern liberalism.

One wonders, conversely, if the prince was equally worried, as he should have been, about citizens who made no effort to improve anything. They simply waited for him to supply their every need and want from the gathered “surplus” without adding much effort on their part. To keep them quiet, the corruption of the people with bread and circuses is an ancient tradition. Today, this same corruption is more likely to be phrased in terms of a “right” to something provided to everyone by the government, which is only too happy to accommodate.

It is not overly difficult to imagine an owner’s concern if he suspects that any improved property might be confiscated by his government as a sign of “exceptional” wealth. It is considered to be unjustly acquired simply because it is large by the government’s definition of what is large. It is but an indication of unjust inequality or exploitation. No other reason for its existence can be concocted. A division of the polity, albeit a disordered one, in terms of the conflict of wealth and poverty alone was already recorded as problematic and dangerous in Plato and Aristotle.

Men will not work, or work overly much, if they are convinced that they will get little or nothing out of it and if a good portion of what they do earn is confiscated. Nor will they work if they are convinced that they are “owed” a living by the government. They simply wait till what they need is given to them. The same principle relates to the levy of high taxes on successful innovations.

As Adam Smith already indicated, the increase of wealth provided by a discovery by an inventor needs a just reward. Otherwise, the inventor will not bother. With such high taxes, men will discourage an entrepreneur from starting anything that might grow into taxable property that can be taken away. Machiavelli saw that the prince ought to encourage and reward those who want to improve their property and begin new businesses.

This latter view, of course, presupposes a prince who does not want to increase prosperity for other reasons. He may rather have a theory of equality and inequality, for instance, that sees any notable difference in income as a sign of exploitation or, as Proudhon once said of property itself, of “theft.” Not a few enthusiastic politicians are eager to distribute wealth without much wondering where it came from, how much work it took to produce, or even what wealth is. The spiritual origins of wealth are the most neglected depths of the economic sciences, such as it is. The most important thing to know about wealth is that its source is not property, nor money, nor governmental confiscation. It is that is wealth is finally based on the human mind and its capacity to produce something that we need or could appreciate.

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