Sam Harris wrote an article against economic freedom. Every sentence is nasty. I reply to a few:
How Rich is Too Rich?
The title is a leading question. It's asking for an answer like 3 million, 50 million, or a billion dollars. It's assuming there is an amount of wealth that's too rich, and the issue is just to decide where the line is. But that premise is incorrect. There is no "too rich". Wealth is a good thing. More wealth isn't bad.
Also, in our culture, the title will be understood to refer to individual wealth and maybe company wealth but not government wealth, university wealth or non-profit foundation wealth.
[Hearst Castle Photo, at the top]
The uncaptioned photo is misleading. The article opens by talking about wealth inequality and rich individuals. But that's a photo of a government owned tourist attraction, not a private residence. It's not a picture of wealth inequality.
I’ve written before about the crisis of inequality in the United States and about the quasi-religious abhorrence of “wealth redistribution” that causes many Americans to oppose tax increases, even on the ultra rich.
Ludwig von Mises and many other economists and political philosophers have written arguments against wealth redistribution and related concepts like socialism, statism, interventionism, initiating force, central planning, and the erosion of property rights. Rather than address these arguments, Harris just incorrectly implies they're a matter of religious faith.
The conviction that taxation is intrinsically evil has achieved a sadomasochistic fervor in conservative circles—producing the Tea Party, their Republican zombies, and increasingly terrifying failures of governance.
"intrinsically evil" is a straw man. "sadomasochistic fervor" is an insult. "Tea Party" is brought up negatively, without specifying anything negative about it. "Republican zombies" is an insult. The assertion that failures of governance are due to taxes being too low is false and unargued. The intensifier "increasingly terrifying" is aggressive, emotional rhetoric, without facts or reasoning provided.
We've now made it through the first paragraph of the article. I'll speed up for the rest.
Of course, this is just an economic cartoon.
After more insults and straw men, but no economic arguments, Harris declares that people who disagree with him are cartoon idiots. He follows up with wild uncited assertions. E.g. he thinks capitalism is at fault for the 2008 financial crisis, but he doesn't engage with the many books explaining why that's incorrect.
If you are an economist and believe that you have detected any erroneous assumptions above, please write to me here.
As I write this, the linked contact form doesn't exist. Also, this is dishonest because many economists have published detailed explanations of why the things Harris is saying are false. He's just ignoring them as if they don't exist, rather than trying to respond to any.
The federal government should levy a one-time wealth tax (perhaps 10 percent for estates above $10 million, rising to 50 percent for estates above $1 billion) and use these assets to fund an infrastructure bank.
This is a proposal for using physical force on a huge scale. Harris wants to forcibly take "a few trillion dollars" for projects he considers wise, including environmentalism. He doesn't understand liberal ideas like the advantages of dealing with people on a voluntary basis, using persuasion instead of force, or only interacting in a win/win way (when all parties think they're better off by proceeding).
Also, I don't think Harris thought through the practical details of his plan. Why does he think most or all multi-billionaires have ~50% or more of their wealth in liquid assets? And what happens if they don't? They have to take huge losses selling off non-liquid assets?
And stocks won't be liquid enough in the context of all the rich people trying to unload a bunch of stocks. The market would crash.
Consider if e.g. Jeff Bezos had to dramatically reduce the amount of wealth he has invested in Amazon. Here's four basic possibilities:
- Bezos finds new investors to replace him. This would basically be impossible when all the other rich people are also trying to come up with cash to pay a huge tax.
- Bezos sells the stock at a huge loss and is unable to pay the government half of what his net worth on paper used to be. He's pointlessly ruined.
- Amazon buys the stock back from Bezos (at near full price) and operates with much less capital than it had before. A tax intended to take money from rich individuals ends up hurting businesses.
- The government accepts non-cash assets as tax payments. Bezos simply hands over a large portion of his ownership of Amazon to the government. And if the government wanted to sell this stock so it could do the projects Harris wants, it'd face the same difficulties that Bezos did.
Contrary to many readers’ assumptions, I am not recommending that the federal government confiscate productive capital from the rich to subsidize the shiftlessness of people who do not want to work.
But he is advocating that the federal government confiscate productive capital from the rich. It's just for a different intended purpose.
to the eye of this non-economist, it seems obvious
Why doesn't he try reading some economics books to find out about what he's missing? The answers seem obvious because he's arrogant, despite knowing he's ignorant of the field.
Yes, I share everyone’s fear that our government, riven by political partisanship and special interests, is often incapable of spending money wisely. But that doesn’t mean a structure couldn’t be put in place to prevent poor uses of these funds.
Harris doesn't propose any structure that would prevent poor use of the funds, nor does he acknowledge that this is a hard problem which people have been trying to solve for centuries without much success. Putting in place a structure to make government more effective is not a new idea, but Harris treats it like an answer even though he apparently hasn't thought of a structure that would work (nor can Harris point to a structure that would work that anyone else has thought of).
The article is hateful throughout, advocates massive use of force (taking trillions of dollars from its owners who give up their property rights only because they don't want to be shot, jailed, or similar) and doesn't even try to engage with the economics literature or even a fair version of what Republicans think. Harris wrote a bunch of biased insults against large groups of mainstream Americans, but didn't contribute a single topical, relevant argument to the current debate about wealth inequality.
Harris also wrote a followup article unreasonably claiming that what his critics objected to was "suggesting that taxes should be raised on billionaires". He then contradicted that by admitting, "Many readers were enraged that I could support taxation in any form." But what about how Harris insulted all Republicans as zombies? And the overall message was his hatred for all people who favor liberal ideas like economic freedom, peace, or property rights?
Related Post: Criticism of Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape