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Trickle-down social justice is a liberal pipe dream


Ever since President Calvin Coolidge slashed taxes in the Roaring Twenties, Democrats have pejoratively described conservative tax proposals as “trickle-down economics.” The liberal contention is that tax cuts — particularly for the top rate — do not spur economic growth for middle and lower income Americans. Instead, they further economic inequality as the wealthy stash their savings in investment opportunities that only benefit them.

Whether based on sound economics or not, the argument is politically and emotionally persuasive — as demonstrated by its long-term salience. Rich people, by definition, have gotten to where they are because of their single-minded ability to accrue wealth. Why should anyone suspect that if given even more money — by the government, no less — these avaricious souls will suddenly feel compelled to share their spoils? That would defy our longstanding presumption about the self-serving essence human nature. Thus, the most ardent left-wingers, like Sen. Bernie Sanders, contend that trickle-down plans are not even intended to work. Their economic justifications are scams designed by lobbyists and corporate lackeys to expand their greedy clients’ bank accounts.

{mosads}Given the ease at which Democrats have battered their counterparts with this populist cudgel, it’s strange to watch them embrace a different form of corporate welfare: trickle-down social justice.


It’s the idea that if the wealthiest and most famous women and racial minorities demand fair treatment for themselves, then the undergirding egalitarian sentiment will ultimately “trickle down” and benefit the truly disenfranchised. After all, these successful athletes and entertainers are not only permanent members of historically underprivileged groups, they’re ostensibly the only ones with the capacity to demand social change. Why shouldn’t they use their “platform” to advance the cause of their identity group?

But then, why do their personal grievances always take priority? The most recent example, the #MeToo movement or its Hollywood sequel, Time’s Up, is dominated by affluent, mostly white women attempting to punish their powerful male counterparts. Sure, the open letter penned by Time’s Up founders pays lip service to their desire “to spend equal time on the myriad experiences of individuals working in less glamorized and valorized trades.”

But less than a week after scores of underage — and mostly anonymous — female gymnasts testified against abuser Dr. Larry Nassar, Grammy-nominated popstar Kesha became the personification of the movement. With a dozen famous singers-turned-suffragettes singing back up, she performed a rousing rendition of her hit song “Praying,” which was inspired by her legal battle with her producer and accused rapist, Dr. Luke, or Lukasz Gottwald.

Dr. Nassar was sentenced to 175 years in prison. The civil case against Dr. Luke was dismissed. 

The NFL kneeling protests followed a similar script. The players claimed to be protesting inequitable treatment within the judicial system. But the only instances of league-wide demonstrations occurred after the players felt personally insulted. The week after President Trump demanded that protesting players be fired or suspended, the number of demonstrating players ballooned from about 25 to over 150. A month later, protest volumes essentially returned to pre-Trump levels.

Presumably, the treatment of non-affluent African Americans had not changed during that window. There were actually 50 percent more (from 12 to 18) nationwide police shootings of African-Americans in October — the month the protests subsided — than in September — the month they exploded. 

If you search for the slow trickle of social justice, you’ll find only a few drips beyond its rich and famous source. In 2017, the closest approximations of grassroots protests — whether on gender or racial inequality — occurred on some of the country’s most elite college campuses. At University of California, Berkeley, students demanded minority-only “safe spaces” and formed a human chain through which only minority members could pass. Yale graduate students led a hunger strike aimed at pressuring the school to negotiate with its newly formed union, which demanded — among other things — stricter sexual harassment laws. Meanwhile, 30 percent of New Haven, Connecticut residents live below the poverty line, which is twice the overall U.S. rate. Berkeley’s homeless rate has reached 1 percent, almost doubling in eight years and over five times higher than the national average. Neither Berkeley nor Yale have staged or planned protests for these disenfranchised groups. Social justice has not trickled down.

This isn’t meant to dismiss every grievance levied by these high-profile individuals. It’s to suggest that their demonstrations are visceral and personal responses to a perceived unfairness. They have shown very little interest in extrapolating their causes to broader, needier communities. They often homage great civil rights leaders or suffragists but expend little effort to replicate their sacrifice.

In the economic sphere, the best counterpoint to trickle-down alarmism is to explain that it misses the point. Economics are about leveraging limited resources — or capital — to build wealth. The best systems are those with limited and efficient governments that incentivize investment and spending through less onerous tax regiments.

Elitist culture warriors should place a similar emphasis on a different form of capital. Once again, efficiency is paramount. Large, heterogeneous cultures have only so much political or emotional capital to make the sudden, sweeping social changes they need. Every superfluous discussion about NFL kneelers or Aziz Ansari means one less essential discussion about incarceration rates or the thousands of sexual assaults that actually occur each year. Let’s not waste all our political will — or capital — on the reflexive whims of the rich and privileged.

Jack King is a national security consultant in Washington, D.C., and former U.S. Army Intelligence Officer. He is a graduate of the Cambridge Judge Business School.

Tags Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Economic ideologies Economic inequality economy Jack King Social inequality Trickle-down economics Trickle-down theory

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