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Desert according to whom?

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.

18 comments to Desert according to whom?

  • The logical result, surely, would be to destroy that wealth, so that no-one receives it at all.

    Being done as we speak.

  • Brad

    Undeserving rich is in the eye of the beholder, of course. There is really only one kind of undeserving rich – those who become so (or incrementally so) due to the use of State Force, directly or indirectly. This is the sticky issue we have in our fascistic amalgam we have today – it has the outward appearance of capitalism but it is based on a bedrock of socialist money, then a crazy quilt of taxes, insidious regulation, and resource restriction. Do those who are rich deserve to be so if they become so for non-free market reasons, even if there is some degree of work and effort involved? Who can detect how much of their wealth is deserved and how much of it is due to intervention? Unfortunately Hayek’s observation comes into play here, somewhat, as it would take a God to determine how much is valid and how much is invalid in a mixed (i.e. fascist) economy.

    In my experience the rich themselves who begat portions of their wealth due to intervention fail to realize it, so there is some truth to the notion expressed. They feel that they deserve it all as a product of their labors. Meanwhile the State apparatchiki/leiters feel they deserve a big slice as the provider of the feast, and the two sides battle it out. Unfortunately as the the two sides of the fascist dialectic grapple with each other, the individual/consumer is trampled upon by both.

  • SBM

    People like Dillow are quick to pick on the undeserving rich, but why don’t they also criticize the undeserving government? Some 87% of the government is currently undeserving, and yet Dillow worries about the ‘rich’ instead.

  • Richard Thomas

    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

    If only this were true. But then they would not be the “undeserving rich”. Unfortunately, the undeserving rich appear to benefit equally as much from the left being in power as the right. This is one area where libertarians could really benefit in getting the message out. In many ways, the Tea Party could be seen as the result of a missed opportunity (though hopefully not unrecoverable).

  • John B

    Is the argument a set up?
    Because if government and its bureaucracy took its vast expensive existence and disappeared, okay leave a police force and army for the time being, there would be more than enough for the deserving and/or undeserving, resources would be far less scarce, and there would be loads to go around.
    I have the feeling that most wealth consumption goes on stupidity.
    How can life be becoming harder and tougher as technology sets us free from slaving away at the ‘basic necessities’ ?
    It’s a con. A bureaucratic con.

  • T M Colon

    The reason no one speaks of the undeserving rich is there’s a better term already in use, criminals. Riches are undeserved if gotten by illegal means of theft, fraud, and so on. The people who deserve those riches are the victims who were robbed.

    If riches garnered were given voluntarily, then the folks who handed over the money must have thought they deserved it.

    If the government were involved… all bets are off.

  • Rob

    ‘Fairness’ in taxation is interesting. It is considered ‘fair’ to tax income from work at up to 50%, but it wod be considered ‘unfair’ to tax the capital gain from selling an (only) house, even though you have gained merely by being ib possession of an asset

  • If you contribute to or have your own lobbying team and use them offensively to get legislative and regulatory changes to “tilt the field” your way, you are undeserving rich. Small government types (classical liberals and libertarians) have no problem condemning that sort of thing and want to wipe it out root and branch. The Tories? I’m really not sure.

  • Valerie

    I’ve always felt that the “poor”, deserving or not, have held the ace card in terms of violence if they don’t receive largesse. That seems to be the underlying fear of those who promote such schemes.

  • RRS

    Aye! would a wee bit-a philology help us here?

    To de-serve is derived from service (or merited – earned- by service).

    There are those who have wealth and enjoy conditions that are not derived from their own service, but sometimes for arranging the services of others (which, indeed may be a service), or from services rendered by others who favored them.

    A better word than deserve is needed to convey the forces of compassion and the envy of the fortunes of life.

  • thefrollickingmole

    Its a bit like the death taxes (which I consider to be the most immoral ever).

    The worker saves their money (which is taxes), invests in a business (which is taxed), and employs more people (who are taxed, and go off the dole queues). They then invest that money in bank accounts (taxed), real estate (taxed), and purchase luxury goods (taxed).

    They then think about their kids and set up trusts and assets for them (taxed).

    After all that they die, and the government of many countries think they need to grab whatever % in tax because theyve been inconvinienced by their cash cow dying?

    But remember those kids dont deserve their fathers money or assets because…… (Ill leave this section open for any Guardian reader to fill in, Im sure they will construct a rational and just arguement as to why)

  • Nuke Gray

    And what about the deserving rich? I am working on a new product that I hope to patent, and then become really wealth from it- a mobile button. no more sewing needed for shirts or blouses. Plastic, so you can leave it on when washing clothes.
    since this is new, I should be able to keep all my wealth, without taxes, right? And authors, like JK Rowling, should also be tax-free, right? If we’re going by ‘deserving’.

  • Quote of the year from thefrollickingmole.

  • Kim du Toit

    Every time I hear the term “undeserving rich” I feel an almost unstoppable urge to punch the speaker in the face.

    Wealth is impartial, and it’s pure nonsense to imply that wealth earned through luck or birth is somehow “worse” than wealth earned by hard work.

    Most arguments revolving around “underserving” wealth ignore the facts: that dynastic wealth, deserved or not, is generally dissipated within a few generations anyway.

    And I’m always suspicious of any kind of redress which requires a subjective assessment of “unfairness”, anyway.

  • Paul Marks

    Edmund Burke’s “Letter to a Noble Lord”.

    Burke explained (politetly but clearly) that the very rich Duke of Bedford was a total scumbag, and that his forefathers had been much the same – that they had got their wealth not by honest work, or even good luck, but by being toadies of the revolting Henry VIII.

    In short their wealth came for their moral vices (not virtues) and the present “Noble Lord” was a chip off the rotten block.

    “So Burke agreed with the leftists that such rich people should have their property taken away – because it was not justly aquired by previous generations and the present owners have done nothing to deserve it either”.


    This is the basic difference between the two sides – whatever names one uses for the two sides (and they go back a very long way indeed – I will not say how long, as I would be thought to be mad).

    I can accept that a rich person is a scumbag – and that he inherited his property from distant ancestors who were even bigger scumbags. And yet I HOPE (fear might overcome me) I would fight to the death to defend his right to keep what he has.

    Even if that rich person – such as the Duke of Bedford in the time of Edmund Burke, subsidizing the very political movement that would rob and murder him (because he does not “deserve” his wealth – although they do not tell him this, or what they plan to do to him).

    I hope I would even have the will to defend George Soros and his family from the leftists he is subsidizing.

    For they will turn on him – sooner or later, if they win he and his family will be robbed and murdered.

    I do not know whether I would have the moral strength to make myself defend someone like Soros – perhaps I would fail (lying to myself that it was not my own fear that held me back – but my knowledge that he deserved being turned on, and the grandchildren and so on, well errrr…….).

    Oddly enough I am certain that one man would die defending George Soros and his family from the very leftists that this latter day “Phillip Equality” is subsidizing.

    The man that Mr Soros has spent so many millions of Dollars trying to destroy – Glenn Beck.

    At this point leftist fall about laughing – but this is the truth.

  • Yes Paul, life makes for strange bedfellows sometimes.

    I can’t help think that in Stalin’s Russia I’d have been better off at Tractor Factory #34 fitting wheels than in the Politburo.

    Many on the left to this day hate Bill Gates despite his philanthropy. Or because?


  • mojo

    Rember unemployed dustman Alfred P. Doolittle’s explication of the “undeserving poor” to Professor Henry Higgins?

  • The Golden Rule

    How many rich people actually deserve their millions and billions IN GOD’S EYES, while so many less fortunate people are born into starvation or dying of preventable/curable diseases due to lack of money? If you had to BET YOUR LIFE on the answer to this question, what would your answer be?

    Hint: millions of the “less fortunate” people worked equally hard or harder than the majority of rich people. They just weren’t lucky enough to be born into a rich family, and their circumstances weren’t fortuitous enough to allow them to rise from rags to riches either.