Redistribution of Wealth

Posted by Katherine | October 27, 2008 – 9:39 pm
Enjoy capitalism graffiti
[ninjawil / Flickr]

The Drudge-induced bloggy craze today was some audio of a 2001 interview in which Obama talks about redistribution of wealth. It was circulated as a rather charged video (see here) posted by Naked Emperor News, which is part of the NObama network.

McCain began calling his rival “Barack the Redistributor” today at a rally in Ohio — a nickname that picks up the Joe-the-Plumber theme and accusations of socialism. One of McCain’s senior policy advisors also claimed that Obama “described as a ‘tragedy’ the Court’s refusal to take up ‘the issues of redistribution of wealth’” — which is not what Obama said (read the relevant passage from the audio here.)

A couple of law profs at the libertarian/conservative-leaning group blog Volokh Conspiracy considered all of this carefully. One of them — David Bernstein from George Mason University School of Law — notes that Obama did not say “the Supreme Court should have ordered the redistribution of income.” Obama was, Bernstein says, observing that political and community organizing — not the courts — are the best mechanism for “redistributive change.”

The way to change judicial decisions, according to Obama, is to change the underlying political and social dynamics; changes in the law primarily follow changes in society, not vice versa. […] And this attitude on Obama’s part shouldn’t be surprising, given that he decided to go into politics rather than become a full-time University of Chicago constitutional law professor, as he was offered. Had he been committed to the idea that courts are at the forefront of social change, he would have been inclined to take a potentially very influential position at Chicago.

Bernstein goes on to say that Obama does seem to support “redistributive change” — but that this hardly distinguishes him from most politicians:

At least since the passage of the first peacetime federal income tax law about 120 years ago, redistribution of wealth has been a (maybe the) primary item on the left populist/progressive/liberal agenda, and has been implicitly accepted to some extent by all but the most libertarian Republicans as well. Barack Obama is undoubtedly liberal, and his background is in political community organizing in poor communities. Is it supposed to be a great revelation that Obama would like to see wealth more “fairly” distributed than it is currently?

[…] [A]re people so stupid as to not recognize that when politicians talk about a “right to health care,” or “equalizing educational opportunities,” or “making the rich pay a fair share of taxes,” or “ensuring that all Americans have the means to go to college,” and so forth and so on, that they are advocating the redistribution of wealth? Is it okay for a politician to talk about the redistribution of wealth only so long as you don’t actually use phrases such as “redistribution” or “spreading the wealth,” in which case he suddenly becomes “socialist”? If so, then American political discourse, which I never thought to be especially elevated, is in even a worse state than I thought.

Labels are easy. Paying close attention less so.


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