When President Richard Nixon arrived in Beijing in 1972, Chairman Mao Zedong — with his Marxist revolution, Great Leap Forward and Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution — had achieved an equality unrivaled anywhere. That is, until Pol Pot came along.
There seemed to be no private cars on Beijing's streets. In the stores, there was next to nothing on the shelves. The Chinese all seemed dressed in the same blue Mao jackets.
Today there are billionaires and millionaires in China, booming cities, a huge growing middle class and, yes, hundreds of millions of peasants still living on a few dollars a day. Hence, there is far greater inequality in China today than in 1972.
Yet, is not the unequal China of today a far better place for the Chinese people than the Communist ant colony of Mao?
Lest we forget, it is freedom that produces inequality.
Even a partly free nation unleashes the natural and acquired abilities of peoples, and the more industrious and talented inevitably excel and rise and reap the greater rewards. "Inequality ... is rooted in the biological nature of man," said James Fenimore Cooper.
Yet for many people, from New York Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio to President Barack Obama to Pope Francis, income inequality is a curse in need of a cure, as there is today said to be an intolerable measure of such inequality.
But let us first inspect the measuring rod. Though a family of four with $23,550 in cash income in 2013 qualified as living in poverty, this hardly tells the whole story. Consider the leveling effect of the graduated income tax, about which Karl Marx wrote glowingly in his "Communist Manifesto." The top 1 percent of U.S. earners pay nearly 40 percent of U.S. income taxes. The top 10 percent pay 70 percent. The top 50 percent pay more than 97 percent of income taxes. The poor pay nothing. Surely, trillions of dollars siphoned annually off the incomes of the most productive Americans — in federal, state and local income and payroll taxes — closes the gap somewhat.
Secondly, though 15 percent of U.S. families qualify as poor, measured by cash income, this does not take into account the vast assortment of benefits they receive. The poor have their children educated free in public schools, from Head Start to K-12 and then on to college with Pell Grants. Their medical needs are taken care of through Medicaid. They receive food stamps to feed the family. The kids can get two or three free meals a day at school. Housing, too, is paid for or subsidized. The poor also receive welfare checks and Earned Income Tax Credits for added cash.
In the late 1940s, our family had no freezer, no dishwasher, no clothes washer or dryer, no microwave, no air conditioning. We watched the Notre Dame-Army game on a black-and-white 8-inch DuMont.
Among American families in poverty today, one in four have a freezer. Nearly half have automatic dishwashers. Almost 60 percent have a home computer. About two in tjree poor families have a clothes washer and dryer. Eighty percent have cellphones.
Ninety-three percent of the poor have a microwave; 96 percent a color TV, and 97 percent a gas or electric stove. Not exactly les miserables.
Robert Rector of The Heritage Foundation added up the cost in 2012 of the means-tested federal and state programs for America's poor and low-income families. Price tag: $927 billion. There are 79 federal programs, writes Rector, that provide cash, food, housing, medical care, social services, training and targeted education to poor and low-income Americans. "If converted to cash, means-tested welfare spending is more than sufficient to bring the income of every lower-income American to 200 percent of the federal poverty level, roughly $44,000 per year for a family of four."
Then there are the contributions of churches, charities and foundations. Where in history have the poor been treated better? Certainly not in the USA in the 1950s or during the Depression. Why, then, all this sudden talk about reducing the gap between rich and poor?
A good society will take care of its poor. But envy that others have more, and coveting the goods of the more successful, used to constitute two of the seven capital sins in the Baltimore Catechism.
At Howard University in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson declared, "We seek not just ... equality as a right ... but equality as a fact and equality as a result."
Yet the only way to make people who are unequal in talents equal in rewards is to use governmental power to dispossess some and favor others. Alexis de Tocqueville saw it coming: "The sole condition which is required in order to succeed in centralizing the supreme power in a democratic community, is to love equality or to get men to believe you love it. Thus, the science of despotism, which was once so complex, is simplified, and reduced ... to a single principle."
Get people to believe you are seeking the utopian goal of equality of all and there is no limit to the power you can amass.
(Syndicated columnist Pat Buchanan has been a senior advisor to three presidents, twice a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination and the presidential nominee of the Reform Party in 2000. He won the New Hampshire Republican Primary in 1996.)