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DeLong Smackdown Watch: Mandos on "Chris Bertram Confuses Me What Is the Rule of Law Edition"

Department of "Huh?!": Chris Bertram Confuses Me What Is the Rule of Law Edition

Our system of the predictable rule of law contains the provisions that:

  1. Congress can regulate commerce among the several states
  2. Congress can coin money and regulate the value thereof.
  3. Congress can levy taxes on incomes from whatever source derived.

And, in addition, that Congress plus 3/4 of the state legislatures can amend the U.S. Constitution.

If you cannot do whatever you want to the distribution of material well-being and economic power with those tools, and think you have to instead resort to breaking the rule of law and simply taking people's stuff at gunpoint without legal process, and shooting those who do not cooperate, in order to accomplish your goals--you are being really, really silly.

Yet Chris Bertram writes:

Hi there liberal rule-of-law fetishists!

Now that I’ve got your attention, I’d like to mention something that’s been bothering me. This idea that we all order our affairs under a system of predictable rules sounds very nice, but I do wonder whether it’s compatible with some of the other things that you seem to be signed up for. Some of you, I know, are worried about this so-called 1 per cent, and even about the 1 per cent of the 1 per cent: the people who own lots of stuff. Not only do they own lots of stuff, but they own the kind of stuff that is useful if you want to own even more stuff. That’s how it goes. And, of course, they also have the means to bring about a favourable “regulatory environment”, so that they get to hold onto that stuff.

Now I suppose you want to do something about that? Yes? One option would be to let them hang onto all their existing assets – after all, they got them justly (or at least non-criminally) according to the rules of the system they themselves helped to formulate – but to introduce a new system of rules (call it a “basic structure” if you like) that works to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged. Assume you have the knowledge to design it with the distributive effects you want (big assumption that!). Let that system grind away for long enough – a few generations perhaps – and you’ll have shifted things a little bit in the right direction. (Assuming, that is, that the 1 per cent don’t use their residual wealth and influence to throw you off-track as soon as you hit the first bump.)

I think you can see where I’m going by now. If you really want a shift in the distribution of wealth and income, if you really really want it, then realistically you’re going to have to use state power to do a bit of ex post redistribution. You’re going to have to take stuff from some people and give it to others...

And he piles on...

But... But... But... One of the rules is that the Congress has the power to levy taxes on incomes from whatever source derived. Progressive redistribution via the tax system is in no wise breaking the rule-of-law. Neither is regulating--tightly regulating--interstate commerce. Nor is debt cancellation via inflation. The Constitution does not establish Herbert Spencer.

What is Bertram's point supposed to be?