The minimum wage fracas emerging in politics highlights the mother of all political fracases: the one titled, Who Gets What?
Anybody surprised to see the question emerge in early 21st-century America must have been doodling on the history book cover when -- just for example -- the French Revolution heaved into sight. Who started and carried on the revolution? The self-defined many, as over against the execrated few. "Being nearly an hundred to one," Lord Acton would write, "they deemed they were virtually the substance of the nation, and they claimed to govern themselves with a power proportioned to their numbers." As for those then possessed of power and money, off with their heads!
Compare the legend of Robin Hood vs. the Sheriff. Compare the tale of Tiberius Gracchus and his brother Gaius (second century B.C.E.) who labored to subdivide public lands on behalf of small farmers. Compare the American populists who sought "the free and unlimited coinage of silver at the ratio of 16:1" to break the gold monopoly they saw as benefiting chiefly the Eastern banks. Compare ... oh, horse feathers. Don't we see how repetitious is the argument President Obama initiated a couple of weeks ago in order to talk about something other than the multiple disruptions in the Obamacare dream? "Wealth" reformers always have this notion of restoring to poor Paul what bad old Peter appropriated unfairly.
Obama's campaign-trail reproaches leveled at "millionaires and billionaires" -- meaning, as much as anything else, his own campaign contributors -- have a pedigree. Alas, not a very impressive one. Someone, it turns out in every era, has a wonderful idea about who deserves what. That is to say, those lacking it deserve it. How to make sure they get it -- that's another matter.
The matter usually starts, or gets carried forward, with speeches. William Jennings Bryan: "You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold." Barack Obama: "I believe this is the defining challenge of our time: Making sure our economy works for every working American."
Action programs follow: minimum wage, free grain, the guillotine. Inequality duly takes it on the chin. However, equality never quite works out in the way promised by the speeches. The battle begins in a new place at a new time.
One fundamental problem, in modern America as in ancient Rome, is that no one has any very precise notion of what equality should look like. Governments tell the people they know. But they don't. Nor do they know how to take from the few and give to the many without inciting social warfare.
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