Love, War and Wealth Redistribution

I was sitting on an airline flight the other day, looking at all the empty seats around me, and this wonderfully “progressive” idea radiantly dawned upon my consciousness.

Why waste empty airplane seats??? Give them away to the poor! And save the world! No more half empty fuselages fuming fossil fuels for a fraction of the freight!

After all, it isn’t fair that the poor cannot afford to fly, and it is a travesty that fat cat corporate kingpins can get away with wasting our precious natural resources, including our limited supply of airplane seats.

Right? I mean, Left? I mean, are you with me? You do want to be fair, don’t you?

As the old saying goes, all’s fair in love, war and wealth redistribution. Isn’t it?

I can see you may not agree. So perhaps we should do something that is truly progressive: seek truth by reason. You know, use intellectual analysis to determine the right — sorry, the correct — answer.

So then, what are fair criteria for wealth redistribution?

Shouldn’t we just redistribute wealth based on how poor someone is? The math is simple. If there were just two people in the world, you and I, and you had $1 million dollars, and I had $1,000, you’d give me $499,500, and then we’d be even. It’d be fair.

Not fair, you say? You worked hard for your $1 million? Ah…. So you are saying the redistribution should be based on effort? I guess that kind of makes sense.

Except that you and I, we have different backgrounds. We’ve had different opportunities. Shouldn’t that be taken into account?

I mean, my ancestors were disadvantaged, compared to yours. How far back am I going? Only as far back as I must to prove that my history balances the scales of fairness. I don’t have to go back far. My parents were poor and didn’t make me work hard, so you had a head start. Case closed.

What?!?!? You can’t go back 1,000 years to when your ancestors were driven from their lands and subjugated by my ancestors!

Why not? …Because… I say so…?

I guess that doesn’t sound very fair, does it?

So maybe we should redistribute based on effort. I could buy into that. If I work really hard every day flipping hamburgers, I should get paid like you do. Who wouldn’t flip hamburgers for $1 million?

No? Gee whiz, I just can’t seem to please you!

So let me get this straight. In addition to effort, you believe the risks you take and the sacrifices you make should be taken into account? You also think it matters how smart you work? How useful the end product is? You think that results should matter?

That’s too complicated. Too many variables! We’d need a super computer to calculate fairness, and we can’t even measure all the inputs in the first place! My central planners would never be able to figure out what’s fair!

Your point exactly, eh? So what do you propose?

The invisible hand??? Now you’re talking nonsense. Maybe if you’d said the invisible man… But even that would be nonsense.

Adam Smith? Whoever the heck he is, he’d need superhuman intellect to figure out what’s fair. If my central planning committee couldn’t figure it out, how could one man?

Ohhhh, ok… Adam Smith’s theory of the “invisible hand”. I don’t think they teach that in school any more.

[In case you aren’t familiar with the invisible hand theory, here’s a summary from Wikipedia:


The theory for the Invisible Hand states that if each consumer is allowed to choose freely what to buy and each producer is allowed to choose freely what to sell and how to produce it, the market will settle on a product distribution and prices that are beneficial to all the individual members of a community, and hence to the community as a whole…. Self-interest drives actors to beneficial behavior…. Efficient methods of production are adopted to maximize profits. Low prices are charged to maximize revenue through gain in market share by undercutting competitors. Investors invest in those industries most urgently needed to maximize returns, and withdraw capital from those less efficient in creating value. All these effects take place dynamically and automatically. [ref]

There’s a classic essay titled “I, Pencil”, which describes the complex “invisible-handed” processes and interactions that make possible the efficient, economical production and distribution of an instrument as basic as the lead (graphite) pencil. I, Pencil should be required study for all high school students.]

But… that’s still not fair! What if someone gets sick, or there’s a tornado, or a meteorite lands on their head??? There’s just too much chance and random luck!

No more chance and random luck, you say, than a bunch of central planners pulling levers and pushing buttons?

Plus you’re telling me that people will have more liberty and opportunity?

And the invisible hand is how we have airplanes – and the empty seats on airplanes — in the first place?

Well, I still don’t see why we can’t fill empty airplane seats with free fares for the poor. Fairness fares! That’s what we’ll call them!

Bad idea? Unintended consequences? Like what?

I see…. The “invisible wrench in the works,” you call it.

Administrative costs, baggage handling costs, heavier payloads, more fuel burned, higher costs for paying passengers, less incentive for poorer people to earn their way, fewer paying passengers, more expensive business travel, higher costs for the resulting goods and services, lower standard of living for the unaided poor, more people receiving public assistance, higher taxes, even less incentive for people to work, fewer producers, fewer choices, higher costs, less innovation….

Maybe those empty seats aren’t so bad after all.