Uncivil Society Part 1: The Robin Hood Stigma

This is part 1 in my series exploring flaws in the reasoning behind current widely-held social ideals. Part 1b, the followup to this post, is here. Put your thinking cap on and take this opportunity to consider what’s written here. If you prefer to abdicate your responsibility for critical thought, and you’ve come just to loudly expound on the dearly-held ideas that were given to you by others, please take advantage of either the “back” or “close tab” button on your browser. Otherwise, disagreement and reasoned debate are welcome. Enjoy.

Karl Marx. Communism.

How do you react when you read these terms? What mental associations do they reveal? If you’ve been through public school in the United States, at least, you probably see red, and think of words like “Stalin,” “the Cold War,” “enemy,” “failed,” and possibly even “evil.” Likely, almost as many negative associations arise when you encounter the term “socialism.” These were the villains du jour in popular media for decades, and are still evoked as boogeymen to scare people away from ideas even tangentially related.

One fundamental problem with the way we often think about these things is the dualistic reasoning that would have us believe that anything associated with Communism must be wrong, and anything opposed must be right. Any real examination of this type of reasoning must conclude that it is ridiculous. Reality is rarely so simple. Yet the tactic continues to be effective.

Thus the Western ideal of individualism is reinforced, and the entire concept of any type of governmental redistribution of wealth stigmatized.

Let’s look closer at this, though, rather than just shutting off our brains. From Guns, Germs, and Steel we learn that redistribution of wealth is one of the main reasons government exists in the first place. Tribes who chose a chief to facilitate conflict resolution, decision making, and economic redistribution had an advantage over those who didn’t. Economic redistribution is what enabled the rise of civilization as we know it; it is the only way non-food-producing occupations could exist (economy meant food). Kind of makes railing against “Robin Hood” style legislation by people who aren’t farmers (and therefore can only exist because of redistribution) seem a little silly.

No one can or should be completely self-reliant. Humans aren’t built that way.

Recognizing that no one lives in a vacuum punches some holes in that individualistic ideal. The resources of our planet are vast, but not unlimited. Not only do the ridiculously wealthy take too large of a share for themselves, but they didn’t even get there on their own merits, free from outside involvement. They are no more worthy of that advantage than anyone else. No one is.

So what might the world be like if we let the stigma around redistribution of wealth die? I don’t think we’d conclude that Communism is the way to go, but we’d probably find improvements to the system we have now.

What if there were a cap on personal income (from all sources), say $250,000 per year per individual or something similarly astronomical to the vast majority of us? That should make it possible to guarantee the most basic food, shelter, plumbing, health care, and internet connection to every person in the country.

Heresy!

Would it help if I pointed out that money is not a personal score? That what really matters is the life you experience? That the difference between $250,000 per year and $20 million per year is in reality negligible? And the difference between $5,000 per year and the same amount, but without having to pay for bare-minimum coverage of the bottom two levels of Maslow’s hierarchy would be colossal, especially considering that you’d be exchanging the former difference in perhaps a couple thousand lives for the latter in millions or, with a worldwide system, billions.

Sure, that’s probably just a fantasy. But breaking down the victim-blaming individualist ideal and allowing ourselves to actually consider letting the government better fulfill one of its primary roles in society without losing our shit would at least be a step in the right direction.

5 thoughts on “Uncivil Society Part 1: The Robin Hood Stigma”

  1. I know you wish to spark a philosophical dialogue but for what. Your proposal needs an overwhelming presence of government to enforce all aspects of implementation–that’s tyranny. There is no incentive to work or to earn one’s own way unless it’s at the point of a gun and an artificial cap to earnings stifles innovation and invention. Your system incubates the desire to live off the grid and in the shadows.

    Also, your historical attempt to place government at the onset of all societal innovation just simple isn’t true. It was businesses, industry, and private transportation that cut across our country based on the needs for affordable and efficient commerce. Local or national government was an afterthought all along our history. Now, President Eisenhower planted the seed moneys and vision for the Interstate Highway System but that was as much a result of the cold war as anything else.

    The tribal system has never produced a large enough return in quantities and quality to sustain all who are dependent on that source—just look at the American Indian before the European arrival and after.

    Where there are no incentives to survive or thrive you’ll find idleness and deterioration, i.e. Detroit and the rust belt of industrial America.

    1. It doesn’t take any more government than we have already to enforce. We already have taxes.

      Money is not the only incentive for people to work. For many, especially those who do the best work because their motivation comes from within, as long as they have enough to not have to worry about money, they will be motivated to do their best. Focusing on money actually reduces motivation. See Punished by Rewards by Alfie Kohn for more about how external motivators destroy intrinsic motivation.

      Again, we are social creatures. Few will want or be capable of living off the grid.

      You’re talking about a much later point in history than I am. I’m talking about the dawn of civilization. As nomadic hunter-gatherers switching over to agriculture, we chose tribal chiefs for conflict resolution, decision making, and economic redistribution. And when those chiefs wanted to keep a good thing going for their kids, it became a hereditary thing leading to monarchy, feudal titles, etc. But ultimately the redistribution of wealth allowed non-food producers to exist, so that people were able to specialize and become craftsmen, philosophers, artisans, etc. There would be no “business, industry, and private transportation” without that initial government redistributing wealth. Almost nothing humans have created would exist.

      Native Americans, who are a primary topic of Guns, Germs, and Steel, developed as they did not because of any inherent limitations but because they happened to be on a continent without the layout and livestock which catapulted Europe out of the Middle Ages. And there were millions of them living fine in America before Smallpox killed something like 80% or more of them.

      “Communism/socialism leads to laziness and rot” is one of the straw man arguments created to vilify those ideas during the Cold War, and it’s nothing new. I’ll just say you have no actual evidence this would happen and leave it at that. Detroit is quite obviously the rot of capitalism, not Communism. The big car manufacturers built it up and then fell behind Japan in quality automobile production and so declined and cut jobs, closed factories, etc. It has absolutely nothing to do with the subject at hand.

    2. Unfortunately I’m presently in a location not conducive to a point by point rebuttal (I’m at work).

      I would suggest you widen your reading library to include, “The Road to Serfdom, by F. A. Hayek” which directly contests the notions of planned economies.

      Also, the claim Detroit is the result of capitalism can be rebutted by the exact opposite evidence or the lack of capitalism due to the constraints of collective bargaining of labor which prevented the agility needed by capitalist to adapt their products for the current market place, thus the inability of business that is the auto industry, to adjust.

      Here are a few economic videos that may or may not add to your intellectual quest.

      https://youtu.be/d0nERTFo-Sk

      and

      https://youtu.be/GTQnarzmTOc

    3. Hayek vs. Keynes is another false duality that attempts to limit the argument. Regulating the market doesn’t necessarily lead to tyranny, and stimulating spending just puts more money in the pockets of the people hoarding all the money to begin with. The problems we have now stem from not having enough regulation of the market rather than having too much, due to regulatory capture. See Predator Nation by Charles H. Ferguson and With Liberty and Justice For Some by Glenn Greenwald.

      Detroit’s predicament happened within the capitalist system, and can’t be used as an example of socialism. Unions don’t change that. Normal workers have to bargain collectively to be able to do anything because they are obviously powerless against large corporations individually. Still, of course, short-sighted positions can be taken by people in any position.

      Anyway I’m not really talking about “regulation” of the economy beyond just guaranteeing a baseline life to everyone.

Leave a Reply