government redistribution: "envy" or "inevitable"?

In response to President Obama's proposed budget, which would raise taxes on the wealthy in order to fund such things as free community college and day-care subsidies, Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) referred to the plan as an embodiment of "envy economics." (Obama's budget also seeks to cut tax subsidies for pro sports teams that build new stadiums. Only resentment at the success of others could motivate such a blow against justice!In this morning's Washington Post, E.J. Dionne responded to this characterization by pointing out that "as it is, we engage in all sorts of redistribution in favor of those already doing well." He cited the mortgage deduction for homeowners and pointed out that large allocations for defense help big defense firms, but the examples he could have mentioned are legion.

"We should just admit it," Dionne recommended. "Government inevitably redistributes all the time." I argued in A Commercial Republic that this has been the case since the earliest days of the American nation. Given that any government economic activity will redistribute wealth from some industries, localities, firms or individuals to other ones, political debate should focus on whether a proposed distribution effectively accomplishes the nation's goals. To object to a spending program on the basis of the mere fact that it redistributes is always and everywhere to offer a red herring.