Chris Dillow, over at his Stumbling and Mumbling blog, writes this:
“A few days ago, the great Paul Sagar noted an asymmetry in the Tory attitude to “fairness” – that whereas they are keen to point to the “undeserving poor”, they are silent about the undeserving rich. I was reminded of this by listening to Nick Clegg on Desert Island Discs.This provoked the question: why do the undeserving rich not recognise their undeservingness?”
The reason why they do not “recognise their undeservingness” is that they are not asking that the state, with its violence-backed power to tax, should give them something, only that they should be left alone to enjoy their wealth, whether it be undeserved or not. On the other hand, if we are going to have a state with these powers to make transfer payments, then it follows that people are more likely to support such coercive transfers if they are made to people who are considered, by some measure, to “deserve” these transfers. Seems a fairly simple argument to me.
More broadly, though, the idea of “deserving” poor or “underserving” rich is, in my view, loaded with ideological significance, depending on who is using the term. Clearly, people feel a lot more relaxed about handing out money – either from a charity or from a government department – to people who are down on their luck but of good character, than they are about handing it out to the feckless. Similarly, it follows that there is more support for taxing supposedly “undeserved” wealth than “earned” wealth. The trouble with such words, of course, as has been shown by FA Hayek in his famous demolition of payment-by-merit in The Constitution of Liberty, is who gets to decide whether our circumstances came about due to “desert” or not. Such a person would have to have the foresight of a god. It is, as Hayek argued, impossible to do this without some omipotent authority being able to weigh up a person’s potential, and then being able to measure whether that person, in the face of a vast array of alternatives, made the most of that potential.
Another point for redistributionists of all kinds to remember is this: if person A does not, according to some yardstick, “deserve” his or her wealth, then neither does anyone else “deserve” that wealth, either, since why should they presume to grab the benefits of such unearned luck? The logical result, surely, would be to destroy that wealth, so that no-one receives it at all.
Of course, whether Nick Clegg or David Cameron would give such a comment is unlikely; I guess they’d go on about how their good fortune means they have an “obligation” to “society” in some form. That seems to be the view of a lot of those who come into the world with a lot of good advantages. It is by no means a fake or ignoble motive, at all; there is some sense, after all, that a lot of people are dealt a shitty hand by natture or Providence and that there ought to be a way that those down on their luck can get something better. But such a point of view in no ways sanctions state thieving (tax), in my view.