During the 2012 US presidential election, a constant slur the Republicans used against President Obama was that he and leftish Democrats were engaged in “class war”. What was interesting about the attack was what it told us about the mindset of many US conservatives. Firstly, it wasn’t that they didn’t accept that there was a class system in the US. There obviously is. But they certainly believed that any sort of discussion of a class system was not in the interests of the GOP and its backers. Indeed, so surreal had the Republican reluctance to debate the issue become that Mitt Romney felt obliged to actually defend the rights of corporations in public. They were happy to discuss the wickedness of the lower income groups using the codeword of “welfare” but would regard the phrase “wealth redistribution” as being almost satanic in its meaning.
The 2012 election confirmed a debate that free marketeers need to start having with ourselves, about how we have let capitalism, which is the most effective means of matching limited resources to infinite demand, mutate into a knee jerk defence of the wealthiest in our society.
The right to acquire wealth is the driving incentive of the capitalist system, and works because it reflects a basic human desire to profit from the benefit of one’s work. The problem for the free market right is that it has begun to express a greater concern and thus allocate a greater right to the protection of acquired wealth than to the ability of those without wealth to acquire through hard work. Many conservatives seem more concerned about shielding the wealth of the obscenely wealthy than sharing the benefits of the capitalist system with the very poor. The problem with this is that capitalism, unlike communism, can not work without popular consent and the rule of an independent and mutually respected legal system. This means that the vast bulk of a society must believe that the capitalist system will reward them if they participate, and that the fruits and rules of that system will apply to all.
Look at, for example, home owners who borrowed solely for the purchase of a home and are now being pursued for failing to make payments, which is a very capitalist proposition. Yet they are being pursued in many cases by banks for whom the normal rules of capitalism were suspended, and a legal system which seems to express greater concern for the rights of those who can afford well paid lawyers over those who can’t.
On top of that, there is the fact that permitting an uber-wealthy class to develop which acquires a seemingly ever growing share of wealth is a threat to democracy and capitalism. The fact is that US political candidates now seem to regard pandering to wealthy backers (Republicans to the wealthy on tax issues, Democrats to the wealthy on cultural issues) as being just as important as winning the votes of actual people.
So here’s the truth: capitalism and wealth redistribution (whilst protecting incentive) are not and should not be mutually exclusive. Wealth redistribution is the grease that oils the wheels of belief in the free market, and there is a need for a new generation of centre-right free-market political leaders to say so.