“They see nothing wrong in the rule that to the victors belong the spoils of the enemy,” said William L. Marcy in 1832. Macy was explaining why victorious political parties claim they deserve government jobs, but today his claim could be applied to a broader swath of American society. As Robert J. Samuelson says, “We are, I fear, slowly moving from ‘the affluent society’ toward a ‘spoils society.’”
There are two ways to become richer. One is to provide more goods and services; that’s economic growth. The other is to snatch someone else’s wealth or income; that’s the spoils society. In a spoils society, economic success increasingly depends on who wins countless distributional contests — not who creates wealth but who controls it. This can be contentious. Winners celebrate; losers fume.
Of course, the two systems have long coexisted — and always will. All modern societies chase growth; all redistribute income and wealth. Some shuffling is visible and popular. Until now, that’s been the case with America’s largest transfer, which is from workers to retirees through Social Security and Medicare. In 2012, this exceeded $1 trillion. Still, for the nation, the relevant question is whether productive behavior (generating economic growth) is losing ground to predatory behavior (grabbing existing wealth and income). There are good reasons to think it is.