The Slate Culture Gabfest covered Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century this week. Not surprisingly, they thought it was an excellent book and an important contribution to the public discourse on economics. And no, none of them had read it, as they readily admitted. (Why do you ask? Short summary of the discussion: “This is not a book to be read. It is a book to be believed and obeyed.”) At any rate, one of things noticeable in their discussion (and in the leftish outlook more generally), is the fanatical prioritization of abstractions over particulars. These are people who care far more intensely about the gaps between lines on charts of wealth and income over the entire population than they do about the experience of individuals. For example, listening to them talk about the economic history of the US over the past half century, you realize that they think the 70s were fantastic, but then in the 80s everything went wrong and have been getting steadily worse ever since. How do you even begin to debate someone who thinks like that? I don’t recall the 70s at all, but nothing I’ve read suggests that those who lived through it as adults felt better off then than they did in the 80s. (One of the hosts of the Gabfest, if I recall correctly, did mention stagflation in passing.) Overall, they left little doubt that they would choose shared “sacrifice” (read: misery), over unequal prosperity. Je ne comprende pas.
The other thing I’ve noticed from reviews of the book—I don’t recall whether it was remarked on specifically by the Gabfest—is that although Piketty’s inequality, r>g, isn’t quite true in the US, some on the left seem as though they really, really want it to be true. Perhaps because it would, they think, justify their preferred solution: high taxes on the wealthy. Someone more uncharitable than myself might, in an unguarded moment, consider the possibility that the latter serves as an aim in itself rather than a means to an end.
Material prosperity isn’t the be all and end all of existence. And it’s tragic that there are millions who can’t find meaningful work or lack the skills to support themselves in the modern economy. If someone has workable solutions to those problems I’d be all for them. (My prejudice would be towards thinking that any ‘solutions’ would be specific to given regions rather than great centralized plans. And would probably not involve massive quantities of tax money. But that’s just me.) But the obsession with ‘equality’, whether of income or of wealth as an end in itself is almost certainly a destructive mental fixation. But it’s a tempting one because it makes a virtue out of covetousness.
(For a good review of the book more in line with my way of thinking, read this by Gus Sorman at City Journal.)