As an undergraduate student in a social work program, I had become accustomed to sharing ideas and conceptions about our society, its ills, their causes, and their remedies, with many of my liberal peers. Many of those beliefs were reinforced by our professors, including the virtue of wealth redistribution. What’s more American than paying taxes?
One day, our Social Welfare Policy professor decided to challenge us and our vehement convictions. Walking to the front of the class, he began writing a string of numbers: 99, 92, 87, 84, 76, 51, etc…
Turns out they were grades from our last test. When he turned to us and said we were going to have an experiment I knew I didn’t like where it was going. He then tallied up all of the points we had cumulatively scored on the test. Let’s call it 2400. He then posed the question to the class: “How do you want to distribute these points among the class? I will accept whatever decision you make“.
After a moment of tittering among us, he continued. “There are 2400 points here, you could say, divide them evenly and make sure everyone gets a 76– no one does really well, but no one fails either“. Or, we could decide to just take points from the top performers and award them to the lower scorers. Yet another option would be for everyone to contribute some of their points to a pool, and then assign them according to need. Finally, we also had the option of keeping things as is: we could just keep our original scores.
Instantly people began talking, and asking questions of him. “No, no” he said, “You all are a group, you decide what you want to do“.
It was a telling process that followed, as those who performed poorly on the test began talking about being fair, and suggested that those of us who did well should share some points, etc. Those of us who did well (myself included) objected. Why should we do worse on our test than we deserved? It wasn’t my fault others didn’t do well! Then the low scorers began cajoling us “what about your social work values?”, “don’t be greedy!”
As one of the top performers on the test I was conflicted. For a while I had unquestionably believed that those who did better in society (financially) had an obligation to share that wealth to help others who were less fortunate. Now I was that rich person who didn’t want to give up my hard earned salary to support others! It was quite a difficult situation to be in, and really challenged my assumptions about the validity of wealth redistribution.
At the end of the day, I came to the conclusion, that the exercise wasn’t fair- it presupposed that my relative success on the test had in some way caused others to do worse. I strenuously rejected this notion. Perhaps I have been lucky to have generally performed at a higher academic level than some of my peers, but it certainly didn’t mean that I should have to sacrifice my success! Some time later (since I thought about this for quite a long time), I realized that this example was closer to real life than I had wanted to admit.
In the same way that I did not believe that it was my fault that others did not do as well on the test, many in our society do not believe that it is their fault that others do not do as well economically. Why should they sacrifice their hard earned income just because others don’t do as well? I could point out that our society is full of historical inequity, male privilege, white privilege, heterosexual privilege, nepotism, and structural barriers that do in some way both contribute to the success of some and the failure of others. But, many do not see this connection- do not want to see it- or do see it and simply shrug it off. In the same way, I did not consider how privileges I have had in my life (male status, excellent primary education, etc) might have inherently positioned me to perform better on the test than others- and so I really didn’t see why I should give up my points.
It is interesting in retrospect to consider what I would do. Would I advocate for absolute communism in the class? Everyone gets equal points despite unequal contributions? Would I push for a highly progressive tax system? Virtually no taxes on the “poor” and lots on the “rich”? Would I support a regressive tax system? Tax those at the bottom at relatively higher rates than myself? Would I fight to protect the status quo? Let the points lie where they may and to hell with the failing students?
I’m not sure what the answer is, but the experience does give me slight pause when I talk about wealth redistribution. Given all of the social factors that contribute to wealth inequity, surely some equalizer needs to be introduced- but where do you draw the line? Do you give food stamps to the poor- but only just enough so they don’t die? Do you seize the assets of the rich- and simply give them to the needy?
More than likely, we simply elect others year after year to struggle and fight over the answers so that we don’t have to.