Imagine someone showing up at your home and saying: “We’re from the government. We’ve determined that this dwelling has more living space than you and your family need. There are so many people who do not have enough. So we’re going to move another family in with you.”
This actually happened to many people following the 1917 revolution in Russia. Among the legacies of the czars was glaring economic inequality. The new leadership saw that as a serious problem. To solve it required policies designed to achieve “economic justice.” So, overnight, private homes became tenements. And for more than 70 years, the Soviet Union spread poverty.
Fast forward to Europe today which is suffering an acute economic crisis. What has gone wrong in Greece and several other countries may be seen as complicated, involving sovereign debt, liquidity, and fiscal and monetary policies. Or it can be seen as simple: For years, the Greeks have been consuming more than they produce. They have borrowed money and don’t have the means to pay it back. Now they are faced with the prospect of increasing austerity. They think that’s unfair. Thousands of people have taken to the streets to demand economic justice, which seems to mean someone else paying the bills they have run up in the past and plan to run up in the future.
One might have expected Americans — self-sufficient rugged individualists that we are — to scoff at such behavior. But from sea to shining sea, the Occupy Wall Street movement is emulating the Greeks and, in more than a few instances, echoing the Soviets. They, too, are demanding “economic justice,” though it is doubtful that this collection of old New Leftists, wannabe revolutionaries, socialists, anarchists, and nihilists could agree on its definition. At a minimum, they seem to be demanding a universal entitlement to “affordable” housing, medical care, higher education, jobs that pay a “living wage,” and a comfortable, early retirement.
If people have a “right” to these goods and services, it follows that other people must have an obligation to provide them. That would be the rich — the 1 percent who are being demonized as undeserving, greedy, and selfish.
I would argue that the rich are a diverse lot. Steve Jobs, whose father was a Syrian Muslim immigrant, and who was adopted by a working-class American family, became fabulously wealthy. I see no economic injustice in that. On the contrary, during his short life, Jobs contributed enormously to America and the world, enriching, both literally and figuratively, tens of millions of people — not just the investors who risked their money by supporting an eccentric and his wild ideas, but also those who purchased his products, and whose lives and/or businesses were improved as a result.
By contrast, consider Eminem, the “gangsta rapper” whose songs glorify rape, misogyny, homophobia, and violence. He, too, is rich. I don’t think he contributes much to society, but, obviously, he has fans who disagree, and it is they, not I, who buy his records and attend his performances. Would economic justice be better served if people like Eminem were forced to cough up more in taxes than people like Steve Jobs? Perhaps, but I would not favor such a policy because I think giving that kind power to politicians and bureaucrats leads down a road that ends with commissars knocking on doors.
All this makes me pessimistic about the so-called Arab Spring. Here’s how I get from there to here: Arab countries that have oil are rich. Other Arab countries are poor. Generations of bad economic policies have entrenched that poverty. The Arab world’s new leaders will have to implement improved policies if they are to lift their nations out of poverty. Where should they look for such policies? To Greece and the European Union? To Occupy Wall Street and those who support them?
The hard truth is that developing and maintaining a dynamic economy is enormously challenging. Among other things, it requires government policies that encourage competition, entrepreneurship, and a strong work ethic. In such an environment, many will succeed — there will even be the occasional Steve Jobs. But others will fail. Inevitably, economic inequality will be one result.
However, a growing economy provides new opportunities all the time, as well as the possibility of setting up a safety net. Are there people in the Arab Middle East who understand all this? Of course. Will they, anytime soon, be in a position to implement such policies? I’d bet against it.
If I’m right, and if the upheaval now taking place in Egypt and other Arab countries produces more poverty, not less, will those in charge acknowledge that they have made mistakes and change direction? Or will they blame others, and lead the crowds in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in chants against America and Israel (but, curiously, probably not against billionaire Iranian mullahs and Saudi princes)?
Will they tell the West: “We’ve determined that you have more than you need. There are many people who do not have enough. So, in the interest of economic justice, you must pay what we say is your fair share.” And, assuming that Europe has indulged the Greeks while great numbers of Americans have cheered the Occupiers, what will be the reply?
— Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.