18 Oct 2011

Fairness Versus Productivity

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Simon Raven, writing back in 1970 in Places Where They Sing, the sixth volume of his roman fleuve, depicts the Provost of Lancaster College repeating to himself the claims of the same philosophy of fairness which Barack Obama and other Americans on the left insist on preferring even to greater productivity and the benefit of all.

“‘In conclusion,’ wrote Robert Constable, ‘it is important to face up to Professor Parkinson’s charge that a high rate of tax on earned income draws off creative and inventive energy, too much of which, he claims, is now unproductively employed in devising new methods of tax avoidance. There is some evidence to support this assertion; but the assertion itself demonstrates and strengthens precisely those attitudes of mind which modern social philosophy is concerned to discredit and destroy. For personal ability or talent must no longer be regarded as a means to personal enrichment but as a commodity, held in trust by some fortunate individual, whereby he may serve and enrich mankind. Indifferent to monetary returns, such an individual should find his satisfaction in the exercise of his skill (grateful that it releases him from the drudgery by which most men must earn their livelihood) and in the knowledge that he is providing pleasure or amenity for his fellow human beings. Such grace, I fear, is still far to seek; and it will certainly not be found in any quantity as long as influential writers like Professor Parkinson continue to regard society, not as an area of tillage to be held and harvested in common, but as a barren and bloody arena in which men mangle one another in pursuit of acclaim and gold.’

That, thought Constable as he lifted his head, is putting it a bit strong. Although there are real gladiators, the iron men of industry and commerce, for the most part the circus is occupied by perfectly decent fellows who are hoping, in return for a conscientious display of talent, to achieve a quiet independence and retire to a Sabine farm. But then again, thought Con¬stable, if society is to be truly co-operative there is no place even for such temperate self-interest as this. It’s not the economics of the thing that matter so much as the moral attitude . . . the idea that one will make a part of human society for only so long as it takes to raise enough money to opt out of that society and buy a pretty house on the hill way up above the noise and the suffering and the stink. If society were justly ordered, thought Constable for the millionth time, if wealth were fairly spread, then no ability would win enough money to escape the suffering and the stink, and all ability would therefore be used to mitigate them. This, then, must be the argument for heavy taxes on earned money – that independence, even when earned, is a crime against humanity.”

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“There are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them.”


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