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Acton Notes - President Message

Journalists often write on themes drawn from the lexicon of class war: the rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer. Just such a theme has occupied the New York Times for the last few months.

The archetypical story begins with one anecdote involving opulence and one involving poverty. It is followed with a series of statistics that seem to show that the gap is widening, and it concludes with a call for higher taxation.

These stories are misleading.

In the market economy, one person’s riches do not come at another person’s expense. Rather, such success means that the person is doing something right while attempting to provide goods and services to others—given that the products are not intrinsically evil. Whether the riches come from book sales or financial services, voluntary purchases made by others beget wealth. This might seem obvious, but it is the most overlooked point of all these demographic studies.

As much as some might not like the rich, or as much as they might find them distasteful as a class, the rich are society’s benefactors. They provide the capital base on which new investments are made and financed. They provide support for the arts, education, and charity. They fuel the luxury-goods industry—the most innovative market sector—with the result that these products (the Internet or wireless technology, for example) eventually become affordable and available to all.

Stories such as those in the New York Times also overlook the fluidity of class mobility in a free society. People move in and out of financial categories many times within their lifetimes. The alternative is a despotic caste system that violates the dignity of the human person.

Should the expropriators be expropriated, as the old Marxist slogan said? No. To do so would be to engage in mass theft, motivated by envy. Such a policy is inconsistent with a free and virtuous society, one that you assist the Acton Institute in defending every day.