It’s All Ours

Late in 2009, Zac Goldsmith, the Conservative parliamentary candidate and environmental adviser, gave a speech in which he sought to answer the question, “How should we spend our collective wealth?” Resistance to the idea that all property is ultimately collective seems to have finally been defeated. Even wealthy Conservatives now embrace it.  

Given the absurdity of the idea, its domination of politics may seem surprising. It is not. To see why, imagine a small town, Collectiville, with three inhabitants. Peter and Paul each make £25,000 a year and Mary makes £100,000. Their combined income is therefore £150,000. How should it be spent?

Here are two proposals. Let Peter, Paul and Mary each spend their own money as they choose. Or they can pool their money and spend it equally, thereby effectively giving each an income of £50,000. My guess is that Mary will prefer the first proposal and that Peter and Paul will prefer the second. If Collectiville is a democracy, Peter and Paul are in luck. Their two votes will outnumber Mary’s one, the second proposal will be adopted, and they will each receive £25,000 from her.

Ganging up on someone to take her money is nasty. So if someone suggests that all the wealth produced in an area is the collective property of everyone who lives there, Peter and Paul are likely to pounce on the idea. The £50,000 they have just taken from Mary was really theirs in the first place. Let social justice be done!

The fact that most people earn less than the average income explains why the emergence of universal suffrage, about 90 years ago in most Western countries, has been followed by massive growth in taxation and government spending, and why most people endorse collectivist theories of property. The ideology is an after-the-fact justification for the predation, in the same way that virulent white-American racism was an after-the-fact justification for enslaving Africans.

Of course, the Collectiville parable is too simple. In the real world politicians do not promise to reallocate incomes perfectly evenly. Even after tax and government spending, those who earn more usually still end up with more. This reflects no moral qualms on the part of politicians but simple expediency. Because H. L. Mencken was right that “every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods”, politicians must be sufficiently restrained to ensure that there will still be some goods to steal.

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