There He Goes Again: George Will on 'Income Inequality,' Bernie Sanders, and Democrats

Conceptual illustration, the rich and the poor. AI and EPS editable files included.
Conceptual illustration, the rich and the poor. AI and EPS editable files included.

It is difficult to maintain patience with "Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist" George Will, who, for far too long, has managed to retain a grip on his position with what once was one of America's greatest newspapers, The Washington Post.

From that lofty perch he continues to spread misinformation, and to appeal to those who mistake the pompous for the profound. Most recently -- and most insufferably -- he does so in his October 17 piece, "A Philosopher Takes on the Left's Obsession with Income Inequality," at National Review Online.

Will condemns Bernie Sanders, in particular, and the Democratic Party, in general, for believing that "economic inequality is an urgent problem," and for believing that "its urgency should be understood in terms of huge disparities of wealth." Neither of these, Dr. Will assures us, is a "self-evident truth." Moreover, he helpfully explains to his readers that this is a term Jefferson used.

Well, yes it is.

Demonstrating what must be conceded is a genuine flair for setting up strawmen, he asserts that economic inequality is natural, but then argues as if the only alternative is complete equality, which is not. Nowhere does he admit that this is not what Democrats, or Senator Sanders or Hillary Clinton, or any others seek when they criticize the enormous disparity of incomes in this country.

Rather, Will writes as if there is no way to keep too few people from controlling too much of the economy except by redistributing everything equally. If there is anyone who really believes that it would be a good thing to equalize all income, or that it could ever be done, that person is not to be found in the Democratic Party, and certainly is not a Democratic office holder, or one who is in the running for the party's presidential nomination.

Some of today's billionaires would take issue with the good doctor's dismissal of the dangers of unlimited accumulation, as would Andrew Carnegie, one of the most wealthy figures in history. Carnegie recognized that too much wealth--that is, control of most of society's resources--in too few hands would ultimately make government of the people literally impossible. He strongly advocated a huge inheritance tax (the Republicans' dreaded "Death Tax"), to tax away large fortunes at death to prevent just such an outcome.

Demonstrating a level of analysis that would hardly rise above that of The Reader's Digest in the 1940s, Will argues--laughably--that income inequality results from "freedom." There was, of course, enormous economic disparity along with virtually no freedom in the twentieth century's classic totalitarian dictatorships, Nazi Germany and the USSR under Stalin.

Continuing his simpleminded argument, Will sniffs, absurdly, that "the entitlement state" exists primarily "to transfer wealth regressively, from the working-age population to the retired elderly." This demonstrates that when he thinks of redistribution, he thinks almost entirely of Social Security. Corporate welfare does not enter into his calculation: No tax-increment financing, no depletion allowances, no carried interest, no equating huge fortunes with freedom of speech. Nothing but "lavish" payments to greedy geezers finds its way into George Will's category of horrors.

Yet in direct contradiction to Will's assertion, Social Security sends nearly a third of its checks to people younger than retirement age, including to children. In fairness to Will, he probably does not know this. What he should know, though, is that Social Security benefits young working families by making it far less likely than in earlier years that they will have to support elderly relatives. Such relatives find independence--that is, freedom--because of Social Security. Rather than transferring money from the young to the old, the system enables younger people to postpone consumption to ensure that they will be compensated for income loss.

Will's inherent confusion is clear when the reader sees him condemning "government" for pandering to the needy, but also for "inevitably serving the strong." He goes to great lengths in attempting to have it both ways.

Will is more than half way through his essay before he even begins to consider the philosopher, who was ostensibly the focus of his piece. That philosopher, Harry Frankfurt, writes that what is important is that everyone have at least enough. Most of us can agree with that, although he minimizes the danger from astronomical accumulation, which makes him also subject to criticism.

Regardless, Frankfurt is far more lucid and thoughtful than Will. Of course, that could be seen as damning with faint praise.