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Jewish World Review Jan. 5, 2000 /26 Teves, 5760

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell
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The real revolutionaries -- THE TWENTIETH CENTURY has been, among other things, a century of revolutions -- not only bloody uprisings and military coups, but also revolutions in science, politics and in the way people live. However, as much as the political left loves to use words like "change" and "revolution" as if they had a monopoly or a copyright on them, the actual track record of the left pales in comparison with the social revolutions created by the free market.

No government of the left has done as much for the poor as capitalism has. Even when it comes to the redistribution of income, the left talks the talk but the free market walks the walk.

What do the poor most need? They need to stop being poor. And how can that be done, on a mass scale, except by an economy that creates more wealth? Yet the political left has long had a remarkable lack of interest in how wealth is created. As far as they are concerned, wealth exists "somehow" and the only interesting question is how to redistribute it.

The history of the American economy in the twentieth century has been an incredible story of the luxuries of the rich becoming commonplace among the masses and even the poor. When liberal and radical intellectuals speak of a period of "change," they almost never mention the 1920s, because it was not an era of the kinds of political changes they favor. But it was a pivotal decade of change in the material well-being and expansion of the horizons of most Americans, including the poor.

It was during the 1920s that electricity, the automobile and radio reached the masses, when motion pictures came of age and began to talk. While technology and mass production spearheaded the changes of the 1920s, this was also a decade that saw a revolution in more efficient distribution systems through grocery and department store chains that brought the cost of many goods and services down within the reach of ordinary Americans. All this added up to a social revolution -- but it was not "change" as defined by the intelligentsia, because it happened independently of them and of the government, and was not part of any master plan or ideological crusade.

As late as 1930, most American homes did not have a refrigerator but, by the end of the decade, most did. By 1970, virtually all families living in poverty had refrigerators. By 1994, most American households below the poverty line had a microwave oven and a videocassette recorder -- things that less than one percent of all American households had in 1971.

All of this went into raising the standard of living of the average American. It was not political rhetoric, mass rallies or poses of moral indignation that gave the people a better life. It was capitalism.

Even in the homeland of socialism, the Soviet Union, it was capitalists who created much of the industrialization for which the Communists took credit. The first new automobile factory built under the Communists was built by the Ford Motor Company. Germany's Krupp and I.G. Farben were also key builders of Soviet industry, along with DuPont, RCA, International Harvester and others from the capitalist world.

Even when it comes to the redistribution of wealth that is at the heart of the ideology of the left, the market does it better. Most American millionaires did not inherit their wealth, but created it themselves. As for the poor, imagine anyone so radical as to promise to move the bottom 20 percent of Americans out of that bracket within a decade and put more of them up in the top 20 percent than were left back where they were originally.

Yet this happens regularly and with no fanfare in the American economy. But even a big change in the distribution of income like this does not count with those who talk about income brackets and ignore the actual flesh-and-blood people who move in and out of those brackets. Most people who were in the bottom 20 percent in 1975 were in the top 20 percent at some point before 1992.

The poor will always be with us, so long as they are defined as the bottom 20 percent, even if yesterday's bottom 20 percent are now among "the rich," as such terms are defined by those with a stereotyped vision of a static world.

Dynamic income changes among people are concealed by talking about brackets, as if the same people stayed in those brackets. The left cannot accept the kind of income redistribution that does not fit their vision.

These and other benefits of a free market will certainly never be called a "public service."

JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author, most recently, of The Quest for Cosmic Justice.


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© 2000, Creators Syndicate