Recently, during an appearance on Fox News, I was asked to defend my belief that rich people are not rich simply because they are inherently more talented than nor work harder than everyone else. This belief is the essence of the progressive worldview --- the notion that, yes, each of us is different and uniquely talented, but our situations in life are as much defined by our individual effort as by the structures and social conditions of the world around us.
Let’s look at just one slice of just one life: mine. I do pretty well financially and that could be attributed to lots of things, but my education is certainly a big part. I learned to write and think critically attending great public schools in my childhood, paid for by my community’s property taxes.
When I got to a high school that, because of conservative efforts to starve public schools in the early 1990s, was overcrowded and underfunded, my parents were well off enough to send me to private school.
And when it came time for college, there was no question I was going. My parents, who were both college educated professionals, helped me figure out the ropes and could also afford to pay for whatever school I could get into.
Later, I went to graduate school, for which I took out loans that were underwritten and subsidized by the government.
Given all of that, I would be crazy to think that I am where I am in life solely because of my own effort. It wasn’t even my parents’ encouragement that made the difference. They started me on a higher educational and economic footing than many other kids who come from a poorer background, and I was blessed by the helping hand of government at important points along the way. “My success” is actually a blend of individual effort plus social and economic context.
I know that the “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” narrative of cowboy individualism sounds nice, but the truth is it’s largely a myth. Everyone needs help learning to tie their shoelaces in the first place -- from a mix of family and government and the community around them. (And that’s if you’re lucky enough to be born with boots.)
At the other end of the spectrum from my own life, one in five children in the United States lives below the poverty line. One in five. Over 44 million adults in the United States, or one in seven, live in poverty --- the highest rate in 15 years. It is not only wrong but immoral to suggest because of ideological convictions that these staggering numbers of our fellow human beings are simply the result of not trying hard enough or being culturally addicted to being poor.
Sure, a few folks may indeed not be trying their hardest but exceptions don’t make the rule. One in five kids is lazy? One in seven adults like being poor and won’t try harder? Get real. The fact is that, just as it was easier for someone like me who started life ahead to get further ahead, it’s that much harder for someone who starts life poor to finish life as anything other than poor.
That’s not just liberal hype. Back in 2004, no more libertarian authority than the Economist wrote the following:
"A growing body of evidence suggests that the meritocratic ideal is in trouble in America. Income inequality is growing to levels not seen since the Gilded Age, around the 1880s. But social mobility is not increasing at anything like the same pace: would-be Horatio Algers are finding it no easier to climb from rags to riches, while the children of the privileged have a greater chance of staying at the top of the social heap. The United States risks calcifying into a European-style class-based society."
And that was written before the economy crashed and things got even worse.
Now The Wall Street Journal reports CEO salaries are continuing to rise while high levels of unemployment persist.
The fact is that while CEOs make 1,000 times more than the people who clean their bathrooms, they’re not working 1,000 times harder. Yet the CEOs’ kids disproportionately benefit and are more likely to be rich when they grow up than the kids of the maids, no matter how hard either works. That’s not a land of opportunity. It’s a land of ossified oligarchy.
Which is why we have taxes -- to oil the gears of opportunity. Taxes are not punishment for the rich; they’re the way the privileged give back to society that has disproportionately given them so much opportunity. And for the rest of us, taxes fund the ladders of opportunity -- from public schools to technological innovation to social programs -- that make economic mobility in America more than just a dream.
In arguing for higher taxes on the richest of the rich, Bill Gates, Sr., once wrote, “How much wealth would exist without America's unique property rights protections, public infrastructure, and academic institutions?”
Mr. Gates, Sr., argues that taxes are how the privileged “recycle opportunity” that public infrastructure created for them.
It’s not surprising since, while we think of Gates’ son, Bill Gates III as creating Microsoft through his own effort and ingenuity, he had a lot of help. Bill Gates started Microsoft with a $1 million trust fund he inherited and learned programming on computers at the public University of Washington, a government-funded institution with systems connected to the government-created Internet. Without that help, all the hard work in the world would not have added up to as much.
Sally Kohn is the Founder and Chief Education Officer of the Movement Vision Lab, a grassroots popular education organization.