Imagine someone showing up at your home and saying: “We’re from the government. 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 after 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 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, fiscal and monetary policies. Or it can be seen simply: For years, the Greeks have been consuming more than they produce. Now they are faced with the prospect of austerity. They think that’s unfair. Thousands 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 want to run up in the future.
One might have expected Americans — self-sufficient, rugged individualists that we are — to scoff at such behavior. But today many Americans are demanding economic justice, which to them implies a universal entitlement to “affordable” housing, medical care, higher education, jobs at “living” wages and an 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, who are being demonized as undeserving, greedy and selfish.
I would argue that the rich are a diverse lot. Steve Jobs became fabulously wealthy. He contributed enormously to America and the world, enriching, both literally and figuratively, tens of millions of people.
By contrast, consider Eminem, the “gangsta rapper.” He, too, is rich. I don’t think he contributes much to society, but he has fans who disagree. Would economic justice be better served if people like Eminem were forced to cough up more taxes than people like Steve Jobs? Perhaps, but giving that kind of 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. The Arab world’s new leaders will have to implement improved policies if they are to lift their countries out of poverty. Where should they look for such policies?
If I’m right, and if the upheaval now taking place in the Middle East produces more poverty, not less, will those in charge acknowledge their mistakes and change direction? Or will they blame others, leading crowds in chants against America and Israel (but probably not against billionaire Iranian mullahs and Saudi princes)?
Will they tell the West: “We’ve determined that you have more than you need. Many others 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 ultimately indulges the Greeks while great numbers of Americans are cheering Occupy Wall Street, what will be the reply?
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute
focusing on terrorism.