Redistribution Isn’t About Sympathy

Many people say they favor redistribution from the rich to the poor because they feel sorry for the poor.  The poor suffer from having too little money, and it doesn’t take much money to help them a lot.  In contrast, the rich won’t miss that money much.

These redistribution advocates usually aren’t very interested in redistributing across the world to poor nations, or across time to poor eras.  So they usually explain that they just don’t feel much sympathy for such distant poor.

Such advocates also usually aren’t very interested in giving money to people who suffer because they are short, ugly, boring, clumsy, unpopular, etc.  Yet a bit of money might go a long way to brighten these lives as well.  Explanations offered for why folks sympathize with the poor but not the short etc. have long left me puzzled.

Garrett Jones has just convinced me that a pretty simple explanation is available: the redistributive urge just doesn’t have much to do with sympathy.   Our ancestors would sometimes notice that some folks in the tribe had a lot more tangible portable stuff than the rest, and those with less would then be tempted to find an excuse to grab a bunch of that stuff.

Would-be-grabbers would look for the most believable excuse they could find.  Sometimes the excuse would be that stuff-holders had violated some tribal norm and needed to be punished.  (Hence our hyper-willingness to believe the rich freely violate treasured norms.)  But lacking a better excuse, they’d fall back on the old favorite, that those with less stuff would sure appreciate each thing more than those with lots.

Our ancestors weren’t in the habit of making up similar excuses to grab stuff from the tall, pretty, witty, coordinated, or popular, for the obvious reason that those people didn’t usually have much stuff to grab.  So our ancestors focused on finding excuses to grab stuff from people with lots of stuff for the same reason folks have given for robbing banks, “Because that’s where the money is.”

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