What’s So Awful About “Redistributionism” After All?

Walmart, Workers, and Public Subsidies of Corporate Employers
OR: What’s So Awful About “Redistributionism” After All?

Although I sympathize with the workers striking against Walmart, I also know that Walmart is not alone. There are a lot of employers who pay a minimum wage which is well below a living wage so that their employees are on public assistance.

Having a person do a job has a cost — namely the amount of money it takes to maintain that person. If they aren’t getting paid enough to cover that, then the employee is subsidizing that employer by taking up the slack. And society will be tacking up the slack for the employee — or else it will become an inhuman monster, holding the relatively powerless low-wage employees hostage. Which is exactly what’s been happening.

There are actually two solutions to that. One of them is very, very complicated, extremely wasteful of public funds, and destroys the work ethic. It consists of these policies, taken together:

  • Raise the minimum wage to a living wage
  • Force anyone needing public assistance to “sincerely look for work”. Do you ever think about how hard that is to measure? It never actually works. People go through the motions — both the welfare-seekers and the case-workers. People find jobs, of course — but not from those idiot state employment agencies. Their job is to “prove” you can’t get work, not to actually find work.
  • Force anyone needing public assistance to “prove they lack sufficient income”. Do you know how they do that? They demand your pay stubs. Haven’t got any pay stubs? See? No income. This is dumb. Oh, sure they can get you for fraud, but who actually gives a damn?
  • Oh yeah, and they might make you piss in a cup. Because that’s a sure-fire way to show you’re a motivated job-seeker (they ought to require drug abuse, because needing to pay for a drug habit would give you a serious motivation to find income, wouldn’t it?). Also, frankly — based on the security level of the other two, they ought to just make you sign an oath. That would be just as hard to fake as the other two (i.e. not at all).
  • Once you’ve filed tons of paperwork, waited in long lines, applied every six months, and jumped through lots of hoops, you get food stamps, or TANF or whatever.
  • Notice how the 4 bullet points above require massive bureaucracies of state workers paid at taxpayer expense (it has actually been suggested to me that this is the real purpose of the policy since it creates public-sector jobs. There might be some sick and twisted truth to that).

The other is dead simple, obvious, and easy. But there has been a pre-emptive ideological war fought against it so successfully, that you’ll probably dismiss it as “socialist” (“ooh, scary!”) before even thinking seriously about it:

  • Tax everybody. Doesn’t matter how — use an income tax or a consumption tax — as long as it is suitably “progressive” (meaning it taxes wealthy people more than poor people). Probably should tax corporations who benefit from it, like Walmart, particularly heavily so as to offset the effective subsidy.
  • From this, pay everybody a minimal “living wage”. It takes care of basic health care, food, housing, etc. It could be indexed to regions, or you could allow people to use this income to choose regions where they can afford to live on it. NOTE: rich people are not excluded from this.
  • The only bureaucratic problem is to ensure that no one draws two checks. That’s relatively easy to do by comparison with all of the management the other system requires.

This system is beautiful, because it handles the unemployed as well as the employed. And you can even make it completely sensible in a private property sense — you just define it as a dividend in the Gross Domestic Product of the country. After all, we’re all supposed to have a stake in the nation, right? And is the will of the people that keeps the country going, so we ARE responsible for its continued success.

It doesn’t interfere with the work ethic, because no one has to worry about losing benefits when they get a job (and believe me, plenty of people will work for more money rather than live on minimum sustenance). Except of course, for the really creative artistic types — they’ll be motivated to keep creating and producing public value even if they have to “live like a monk”. And students. And retired people. Gosh — basically all of the people we have separate massive bureaucracies to support (now unnecessary).

We would save enormously on wasted public dollars, because we wouldn’t be paying for all of that soul-crushing bureaucracy intended to certify people as economic losers.

I’ve heard this kind of scheme called a number of different things, including “bleeding heart libertarianism”, which seems a little ironic. But I really don’t care much what you want to call it.

I know this isn’t a very politically realistic option. It steps on too many people’s ideological beliefs. It involves people “getting something for nothing” (which is not actually true, but it’s surely how it would be attacked). But it makes a lot of sense, solves a lot of problems simultaneously, is much more honest than the way we do things now, and ultimately is just a simplified version of what all public assistance programs come down to: deciding as a society that there is some level we won’t allow people to fall below, because we value them for their intrinsic worth as human beings and not just as tools for us to use. It’s a recognition that the ability to produce monetary income is not and can never be an absolute value of the worth of human beings.

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About Terry Hancock

Terry Hancock is the producer and director of "Lunatics" ( http://lunatics.tv ). He is also a regular columnist for Free Software Magazine ( http://www.freesoftwaremagazine.com/articles_by/5 ), and a lifelong advocate for space, science, and technology. More at http://terryhancock.narya.net
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