Victor Davis Hanson
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Traditional peasant societies believe in only a limited good. The more your neighbor earns, the less someone else gets. Profits are seen as a sort of theft. They must be either hidden or redistributed. Envy rather than admiration of success reigns.

In contrast, Western civilization began with a very different ancient Greek idea of an autonomous citizen, not an indentured serf or subsistence peasant. The small, independent landowner -- if left to his own talents and if his success was protected by, and from, government -- would create new sources of wealth for everyone. The resulting greater bounty for the poor soon trumped their old jealousy of the better off.

Citizens of ancient Greece and Italy soon proved more prosperous and free than either the tribal folk to the north and west, or the imperial subjects to the south and east. The success of later Western civilization in general, and America in particular, is testament to this legacy of the freedom of the individual in the widest political and economic sense

We seem to be forgetting that lately -- though Mao Zedong's redistributive failures in China, or present-day bankrupt Greece, should warn us about what happens when government tries to enforce an equality of result rather than of opportunity.

Even after the failure of statism at the end of the Cold War, the disasters of socialism in Venezuela and Cuba, and the recent financial meltdowns in the European Union, for some reason America is returning to a peasant mentality of a limited good that redistributes wealth rather than creates it. Candidate Obama's "spread the wealth" slip to Joe the Plumber simply was upgraded to President Obama's "I do think at a certain point you've made enough money."

The more his administration castigates insurers, businesses and doctors; raises taxes on the upper income brackets; and creates more regulations, the more those who create wealth are sitting out, neither hiring nor lending. The result is that traditional self-interested profit-makers are locking up trillions of dollars in unspent cash rather than using it to take risks and either lose money due to new red tape or see much of their profit largely confiscated through higher taxes.

No wonder that in such a climate of fear and suspicion, unemployment remains near 10 percent. Deficits chronically exceed $1 trillion per annum. And now the poverty rate has hit a historic high. We are all getting poorer in hopes that a few don't get richer.

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Victor Davis Hanson

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a recipient of the 2007 National Humanities Medal.