May 11, 2014

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But Piketty is not a revolutionary: very sensibly, he wants to avoid a violent upheaval. The means by which he proposes this is his second idea, a global tax on capital, presumably a substantial one if it is to achieve his desired end of more equality. 

To take the first point first. I hesitate to bring my own case once again before the public, but I plead the extenuation that at least it is a subject upon which I am relatively expert. How does the fact harm me that the ratio of Bill Gates”€™ fortune to mine exceeds the ratio between my fortune and that of someone on social security? I count myself a fortunate person: I have never suffered any hardship, at least none that was not the consequence of my own conduct or choice. I have been poor, but not starving. I have never suffered gross injustice, give or take a couple of wrongful arrests in countries of ill repute (it was my own fault for going to them, though of course I loved them).

Bill Gates”€™ fortune harms me only if I let the acid of envy and resentment etch itself on my mind. This is not to say that some fortunes may not be ill-gotten: those of many Russian oligarchs, for example. But such fortunes are wrong not because they are much greater than mine, but because they are ill-gotten. No doubt there are many gray areas between pure white legitimacy and the dark black of outright dishonesty, but the obvious ambiguities of life should be enough to restrain our resentment. 

As to the tax on capital, Piketty is right to say that it must be global, for otherwise there would be capital flight or very severe local restrictions on capital movement, neither of which would be economically productive or conducive to equality. A global tax on capital, however, would require a global authority to raise, collect, and enforce it, a kind of giant European Union in fact. I am glad I shall not live to see it, but I doubt that anyone else will live to see it either, born or unborn, if only because the governors in the world government would need a tax haven in which to put their own money. 

I suspect that the huge success of Piketty’s book is a tribute to the level of resentment in the world rather than the result of a thirst for knowledge, especially among those rich enough to buy it, largely as an accessory. Truth, Gibbon tells us, rarely finds so favorable a reception in the world. I might be wrong, for I haven”€™t read it yet. In the meantime, I can resent its success.


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