No Need to Spread It Around

The case for wealth redistribution is no stronger because Warren Buffett supports it

Japan and Korea both lay claim to Dokdo island, which lies just to the east of Korea, or just to the west of Japan, depending on how you look at it.

I recently read a newspaper article making the Korean case. The author’s central argument was that some Japanese history professor agrees that Dokdo belonged to Korea. He did not explain the professor’s reasoning. The mere fact that, despite being from the “other side”, he endorsed the Korean claim was supposed to be sufficient.

Call this the fallacy of the unlikely sympathiser. Several left-wing commentators have recently been indulging in it. They enjoy pointing out that Warren Buffett, the world’s most successful and famous capitalist, favours wealth redistribution.

Indeed he does. But his argument is as absurd as it is familiar: “I personally think that society is responsible for a very significant percentage of what I’ve earned … when you’re treated enormously well by this market system … society has a big claim on that.”

The spurious appeal of this argument depends on an ambiguity in the word “owe”. Warren Buffett owes his wealth to society in the sense that, if society did not exist, he would not be wealthy. Without consumers and employees – without other people – a capitalist could not get rich. But it does not follow from this that society is owed his wealth in the sense of having a legitimate claim on it.

You also owe the sun your wealth in the first sense. Without the sun, you would have no wealth, since you would not exist. Must you therefore give the sun your money? Surely Mr Buffett will not follow the Aztecs and start making offerings to the sun god.

There may be good arguments for what Barack Obama calls “spreading the wealth around”. But it is absurd to present it as a matter of repaying debts. If it were, there would be no reason for it to go from rich to poor. Poor children have made no contribution to Warren Buffett’s wealth. Should they receive none of his taxes? Damien Hirst owes his massive income to wealthy patrons. Should Charles Saatchi receive most of his taxes?

Debts cannot arise without an explicit contract. People who want you to pay up are forever trying to say otherwise. But we should ignore them, even when they are an unlikely source of such nonsense.

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