There can be little doubt that Thomas Piketty's new book Capital in the 21st Century has struck a nerve globally. In fact, the Piketty phenomenon (the economic equivalent to Beatlemania) has in some ways become a bigger story than the ideas themselves. However, the book's popularity is not at all surprising when you consider that its central premise: how radical wealth redistribution will create a better society, has always had its enthusiastic champions (many of whom instigated revolts and revolutions). What is surprising, however, is that the absurd ideas contained in the book could captivate so many supposedly intelligent people.
Prior to the 20th Century, the urge to redistribute was held in check only by the unassailable power of the ruling classes, and to a lesser extent by moral and practical reservations against theft. Karl Marx did an end-run around the moral objections by asserting that the rich became so only through theft, and that the elimination of private property held the key to economic growth. But the dismal results of the 20th Century's communist revolutions took the wind out of the sails of the redistributionists. After such a drubbing, bold new ideas were needed to rescue the cause. Piketty's 700 pages have apparently filled that void.
Any modern political pollster will tell you that the battle of ideas is won or lost in the first 15 seconds. Piketty's primary achievement lies not in the heft of his book, or in his analysis of centuries of income data (which has shown signs of fraying), but in conjuring a seductively simple and emotionally satisfying idea: that the rich got that way because the return on invested capital (r) is generally two to three percentage points higher annually than economic growth (g). Therefore, people with money to invest (the wealthy) will always get richer, at a faster pace, than everyone else. Free markets, therefore, are a one-way road towards ever-greater inequality.
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