Do I owe something to the beggar on the street? If so, can I discharge that obligation by writing him a check? Does he have a claim against me? If so, can he make that claim by presenting me with a bill?

Is my obligation smaller if the beggar lives in another city? What if he lives across the Rio Grande? What if he lives in Africa?

More generally, there are one billion people in the world living on about $1 a day and another one billion living on about $2 a day. If the beggar on my street earns more than that, is my obligation to him smaller than my obligation to the two billion people in the world who are worse off than he is.

Does inequality by itself create moral claims and obligations? If so, is income inequality the most important kind of inequality? Or, is inequality of IQ, attractiveness, life expectancy or social status more important?

These are interesting questions, provided you start with the premise that need is a claim. They are not very interesting if you start with the Jeffersonian idea that we each have a right to pursue our own happiness—and that the needs of others do not obviate that right. (See What is Classical Liberalism? ) It is a good thing when we choose to be charitable, but the recipients of our generosity are not entitled to our gifts.

What makes all this topical are three developments:

  1. A presidential campaign in which the winner campaigned on class warfare, implying that the success of a few is somehow connected to the economic problems experienced by everyone else.
  2. A group of academic economists who—in TV appearances, in editorials and in other venues—imply that something akin to “theft” has occurred, where those at the bottom have less because those at the top have more.
  3. A recent tendency on the left to use the language of ethical obligations and ethical claims when discussing inequality and public policy.

So as not to keep you in anguished suspense, nobody on the left—and I mean absolutely no one—even tries to answer the questions I asked in the beginning of this post. When we use terms like “obligation” and “claim” we are using the language of individualism. But almost no one on the left who writes about inequality believes in individualism. They’re all collectivists. What they really believe in is collective decision-making. So what you see happening in post after post is an ethical bait and switch.

You get hooked in by the language that is personal and that most of us can identify with. And before you know it you are being asked to agree to something that is completely impersonal—transferring power and money to government bureaucrats.

What has caused the latest stir is Harvard economist Greg Mankiw’s very excellent essay, Defending the One Percent. Mankiw argues that high-income individuals are more than paying their own way. He also points to the total lack of consistent reasoning on the part of the redistributionists—making many points similar to my own discussion of the issue.

In response, Harold Pollack (blogger at The Incidental Economist) says the issue is not about high-income earners paying their own way,

“It’s about what we owe each other given our differing roles and resources in a prosperous, interconnected society.”

Mankiw reports that he received a mass email message from the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute with this morsel:

“Since the 1970s, the United States has become increasingly unequal in terms of income, wages, wealth and opportunity. Today, 1 percent of Americans are taking home nearly 20 percent of the country’s total income and own nearly 35 percent of the country’s wealth. This means that you (yes, you!) are probably making less money than you deserve to. (emphasis mine)”

Pollack even individualizes his argument by describing help he got from a tow truck driver at road side. Presumably, the tow truck driver got paid. So there was a mutually beneficial exchange—the kind of exchange that is at the heart of the free enterprise system. But Pollock thinks he owes the tow truck driver something more:

“My taxes help provide his child with subsidized lunches and preschool. I help provide his family with health insurance. That’s as it should be. I still get a very good deal. He had my back. I should have his.”

But wait a minute. What exactly does he owe the tow truck driver? Does he owe more or less than he owes people living on $1 a day? Or people living on $2 a day? Or...?

If the tow truck driver has a moral claim against Pollack, we never learn what it is. Oh and how much does the driver deserve to earn? The Economic Policy Institute can’t tell us that either.

In some ways this is all very surprising. After all, the 20th century was the century of collectivism. It was the century of communist, socialism, national socialism (fascism) and the welfare state. Each and every one of these isms was devoted to taking from some and giving to others. After all these years and all that misery you would think that someone, somewhere would have perfected an argument for forcible redistribution of income. And yet what we find today at the leftwing blogs is truly pitiful.

I have said this before, but it bears repeating. The left is intellectually bankrupt. It has been that way for almost a half century.