- - Sunday, December 22, 2013

The minimum-wage fracas emerging in politics highlights the mother of all political fracases — the one titled, Who gets what?

Anybody surprised to see the question emerge in early 21st-century America must have been doodling on the history-book cover when — just for example — the French Revolution heaved into sight. Who started and carried on the revolution? The self-defined many, as over against the execrated few. “Being nearly an hundred to one,” Lord Acton would write, “they deemed they were virtually the substance of the nation, and they claimed to govern themselves with a power proportioned to their numbers.” As for those then possessed of power and money, off with their heads.

Compare the legend of Robin Hood versus the Sheriff. Compare the tale of Tiberius Gracchus and his brother Gaius (second century B.C.) who labored to subdivide public lands on behalf of small farmers. Compare the American populists who sought “the free and unlimited coinage of silver at the ratio of 16:1” to break the gold monopoly they saw as benefiting chiefly the Eastern banks. Don’t we see how repetitious is the argument President Obama initiated a couple of weeks ago in order to talk about something other than the multiple disruptions in the Obamacare dream? “Wealth” reformers always have this notion of restoring to poor Paul what bad old Peter appropriated unfairly.

Mr. Obama’s campaign-trail reproaches leveled at “millionaires and billionaires” — meaning, as much as anything else, his own campaign contributors — have a pedigree, but alas, not a very impressive one. Someone, it turns out in every era, has a wonderful idea about who deserves what. That is to say, those lacking it deserve it. How to make sure they get it — that’s another matter.

The matter usually starts, or gets carried forward, with speeches. William Jennings Bryan: “You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” Barack Obama: “I believe this is the defining challenge of our time: making sure our economy works for every working American.”

Action programs follow: minimum wage, free grain, the guillotine. Inequality duly takes it on the chin. However, equality never quite works out in the way promised by the speeches. The battle begins in a new place at a new time.

One fundamental problem, in modern America as in ancient Rome, is that no one has a very precise notion of what equality should look like. Governments tell the people they know, but they don’t. Nor do they know how to take from the few and give to the many without inciting social warfare.

Thus, the struggle against “inequality” — unevenness in honors, abilities, rewards and so on — isn’t just the oldest human struggle; it’s in many ways the most dishonest, promising unknowable benefits from badly misunderstood remedies.

Take minimum-wage increases. What’s the “fair” wage level, the one that smoothes out inequalities? The president wants a minimum wage of $10.10 an hour, versus $7.25 at present. SeaTac, Wash., a 10-square-mile community surrounding Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, has kicked the rate up to $15, raising the question, well, why not $20? Why not $30? Wouldn’t such rates further “equality”? Where do we stop? With everybody earning the same? Or with no employer willing to hire at an unaffordable wage rate?

Does that matter? If not, why not? Doesn’t equality mean equality? Or is it, after all, just a slogan with which to roil political debate and block sustained philosophical reflection on the absurdity of supposing mankind can ever jigger an economic system that will override the individual differences that commonly produce different outcomes?

The futility of income-redistribution schemes becomes clearer than ever before with the manifold belly-flops produced by Obamacare. What government, by edict, can level out the challenges of receiving medical care across a whole society? Not even death, with its numerous exit strategies, is that accommodating. Not that the president won’t keep trying. He appears really to believe the theology of equality — hard as it is to know why.

William Murchison is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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