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A demonstrator attends the Occupy LA encampment in front of Los Angeles City Hall on Oct. 25, 2011. (ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)
A demonstrator attends the Occupy LA encampment in front of Los Angeles City Hall on Oct. 25, 2011. (ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

Tom Velk

Occupy this truth: Worldwide, the rich aren't getting richer Add to ...

The occupiers have their heads in the clouds. Maybe the consciousness-altering quality of the tent-city atmosphere accounts for the inability of the inhabitants to understand that what they’re asking for, social justice, has been delivered worldwide. The economic, social and political “delivery wagons” are fuelled by the riches found in the most fortunate parts of the world.

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The occupiers think of themselves as “beyond nationhood.” But when they voice their demands for a better distribution of income, they don’t look beyond the West’s borders. Their thinking is parochial.

The idea that the rich are getting richer, etc., is profoundly incorrect for the world at large. It is the sad ideological remnant of the Fabian (and worse) fable. Low-income folks, especially in Asia, no longer die by the millions at the hands of Communist “leaders”; they do not starve by the millions in famines, floods and pandemics. They do have a real chance to leave their children a patrimony that includes a decent quantity of leisure, better government, and improved education.

Much, if not all, of that relative gain in real wealth has been a result of the interaction between wealthy nations and poor ones. Over the past 70 years, the “rich” nations have not gained nearly so much, especially when the “up from nothing” element is factored in. The interaction is sometimes a matter of trade, or capital flows, or idea transfers, or intellectual cross-fertilization, or military and intellectual confrontation between aforesaid “leaders/ideas” and the rich West. In any case, it is a benign, if unintended, or at least unplanned, transfer downward from “rich” to “poor.”

Trade makes everybody better off: It is an economic axiom. Even if the rich get richer by trade, the poor get richer, too, as long as trade is voluntary. Here in the West, a dramatic expansion in wealth, income and employment took place in the 18th and 19th centuries. Yes, the new factories were peopled by myriads of children and young women. Yes, I am sure that little Oliver lookalikes were hard treated by local beadles. But the lives Oliver and his in-another-story sisters left behind were unspeakably dark and hideous, scarred by poverty, ignorance and rural deprivation. The mill towns and worker dormitories into which they moved were a great improvement over the dirt-floored, half-stable hovels back home. That’s why they fled to the factory towns in the thousands.

“Riches” include intangibles like simple survival, living longer, enjoying liberty and making free choices. The world’s poor have been catching up with the rich ever since we left the caves. Social evolution means that only the most successful, the luckiest, the ones with the best genetic endowment, therefore the “richest,” survive to become the founding fathers of their primitive communities. Only afterward do trade, specialization and better social organization make it possible for the less fortunate to survive, and people a growing and improving community. At this earliest stage of human existence, closing the gap between rich and poor consists of a state of affairs where the poor are able to come into existence at all.

The most remarkable acceleration of this process of gap-closing occurred during the rise of capitalism. The best measures of income show that – all across the world – the income of ordinary persons was flat (with a Dark Age dip) from Roman times to the 17th century. Real income was quite low, and included early death, life-long misery, peonage, and indignities of all kinds. The folks on top, nonetheless, could and did dine on hummingbird tongue, command vast armies, rule others with imperial power and enjoy the best in sex and drugs. The gap between the top and bottom closed quite a bit with the “discovery” of technical progress, the rule of law and novel, innovative economic organization in the form of free markets – the component parts of the industrial/economic revolution. The gap will continue to close so long as the processes that underlie this beneficent process, that is, free markets, trade, small-L liberal political ideology and the rule of law, remain in place.

The occupiers would be no more than a trivial instance of a group of bad students who never learned their history lessons if it weren’t for their apparent belief in the dangerous ideas of rebellion, class warfare and involuntary redistribution. A most profound and important “gap closing” occurred 20 years ago, with the defeat of communism. That system promised to bring about a better world, so long as enough bosses, bankers, kulaks, plutocrats and capitalists were killed off. The class-killing was more than wordplay. Communist regimes murdered an estimated 100 million people between 1917 and 1990. Those murders created a near infinite gap between the haves and have-nots who were locked into that prison-camp world.

The beclouded occupiers aren’t modern communists. I haven’t heard any of them claim they want their justice to come from the end of a gun. But the nightmare dreams they do represent – class warfare, involuntary redistribution and an antagonism to capitalism’s rules of law – are the very antithesis of the ideas that for the past several centuries have improved the lives of all of mankind: especially so the status of the very lowest.

Tom Velk is a professor of economics and director of the North American Studies program at McGill University.

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