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Is Wealth Redistribution Theft? And Does It Matter?

If you spend any time reading free-market thinkers, you’ll inevitably encounter the argument that wealth redistribution is wrong because it is theft. See, for instance, this recent article by economist Dominick T. Armentano aptly titled “Redistribution Is Theft.”

On the one hand, the argument is so straightforward as to border on the self-evident. You earn money, and “redistribution” involves the government taking it by force and giving it to people who didn’t earn it. How can that not be theft?

And yet, on the other hand, virtually no one is persuaded by that argument. I don’t mean that they think stealing is sometimes okay. I mean they aren’t persuaded that redistribution is stealing. So what gives?

The answer has two parts, one economic, one moral.

Economically, we are taught to view wealth as a social product, not an individual creation, and the person from whom wealth is “redistributed” is thus one who got an unequal share of “society’s” resources. Morally, we are taught that a person’s need entitles him to support by others and so, as Saint Ambrose put it, “You are not making a gift of your possessions to the poor person. You are handing over to him what is his.”

So is wealth redistribution stealing? You bet it is. But to see that is not easy. It requires grasping that wealth is created by individuals and morally belongs to those individuals, regardless of who claims to need it more — and that requires the willingness to examine (or reexamine) some of the deepest issues in economics and philosophy.

If you want to go on that journey, there’s no better place to start than Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, a novel that by necessity spans more than a thousand pages. You cannot defeat the welfare state with a sound bite.