The Left is hailing Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century—published in English this month—as the manifesto of the age. Guy Sorman read it and finds the book to be a trove of historical nuggets and superficially impressive statistics combined with recycled Marxist prophecy. Here are a few reasons Sorman finds the book wrongheaded:
Piketty does not believe that free markets can spontaneously generate greater equality: government intervention is therefore needed, mostly through taxation. His market pessimism contradicts the findings of most classical economists, who see the rise of a huge middle class as an outgrowth of capitalism. Piketty rejects what he considers an optimistic illusion about markets born in the 1960s. From the end of the World War II until the late 1970s, a middle class expanded in the West, and incomes from wages and capital converged. But this convergence, Piketty argues, was a historical accident. In the long run, he says, capital owners always prevail over employees. In his insistence, Piketty sometimes contradicts himself. At one point, he argues that income divergence occurs independent of political influence. But he also writes that the current divergence was initiated by the policies of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, who “scrapped taxes on the wealthy.” The inadequacy of his framework is powerfully illustrated by the example of France, where the gap between the so-called 99 percent and the 1 percent became wider under a socialist government during the 1980s. Was François Mitterrand a hidden Reaganite?
This contradiction between ideological judgments and objective data is the book’s fundamental flaw. The emergence of a super-wealthy minority (closer to 0.001 percent than to 1 percent, as Piketty himself admits) has likely occurred for different reasons in different countries. For instance, the new oligarchies in Russia, Nigeria, or China can’t be explained as a consequence of the free market. Inequality in these nations results from corruption, a one-party system, and kleptocracy. In the United States, a super-wealthy minority—“superstars and supermanagers,” as Piketty calls them—has attained financial preeminence predominantly through globalization: entrepreneurs like Bill Gates or large hedge fund managers operate in a worldwide market, gaining unprecedented profits. Their riches may be considered excessive or unfair—but that would be a moral judgment, not an economic one. […]
Piketty’s book has other flaws. The author never considers whether some degree of inequality is necessary for growth in a market economy. Instead, he attacks economists for “relying too much on mathematical models and not understanding the deep structures of capital and inequality.” He thus ignores the fact that economists whom he dislikes have identified the actual factors of growth—such as property rights and the rule of law—based on empirical observation. Without the economic models he scorns, countries like China, India, and Ghana would not have seen such spectacular growth—and their poorest citizens would have far fewer opportunities. [City Journal, April 22]