Are the Rich Necessary? Great Economic Arguments and How They Reflect Our Personal Values

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Are the Rich Necessary? Great Economic Arguments and How They Reflect Our Personal Values by Hunter Lewis Axios * 2007 * 231 pages * $20.00

Reviewed by George Leef

In my high school days I had a friend who had been thoroughly imbued with the socialist mindset. He was willing to concede there might be some adverse conse- quences if the government went too far toward equality and eco- nomic control, but was adamantly in favor of the "humanity" of socialism. We amiably debated the role of profit, income inequality, just prices, greed, and similar questions.

Reading Hunter Lewis's Are the Rich Necessary? made me think back on those discussions, for it delves into the basic economic and philosophical disputes between advocates of socialism and advocates of laissez-faire capitalism. Throughout, Lewis gives readers a dialogue between opposing points of view similar to but much more learned than my debates back then. I regard his presentation of the socialist/egalitarian philosophy as fair (Lewis is not merely pummeling a strawman), but the pro-market side clearly comes out on top. If you were to give the book to a libertarian son or daughter, you need not worry about turning him or her into a Marxist.

At the outset Lewis says he isn't trying "to propagate a particular set of ideas." It is obvious, however, that he knows the free-market arguments very well and is not indifferent between the two camps.

His first chapter digs into the title question: Are the rich necessary? Lewis presents several arguments that they are not: that they are parasites, cause poverty, and exploit the poor. In support of that litany of complaints Lewis quotes Abby Rockefeller (yes, a descendent of oil billionaire John D. Rockefeller), who said, "Many suffer because of the few." Lewis then follows up by making the case that the rich (at least those who earn their money) are beneficial.

In presenting the pro-market side, Lewis quotes extensively from Henry Hazlitt: "No matter whether it is their intention or not, almost anything that the rich can legally do tends to help the poor. The spending of the rich gives employment to the poor. But the saving of the rich and their investment of these savings in the means of production gives as much employment and in addition makes that employment constantly more productive and highly paid."

It's hard not to notice that the argument against income inequality has a bumper-sticker quality to it, while Hazlitt's rejoinder aims at the rational faculties. I don't think Lewis is being unfair here. …