Unjust Deserts: How the Rich Are Taking Our Common Inheritance and Why We Should Take it Back

with Lew Daly

Buy now at Amazon or Indiebound

  • * How much of wealth is the result of being born into a society with a rich heritage that is shared by all and how much is due to individual effort?
  • * Why should only a tiny fraction of our citizens keep most of the money made off this heritage if, in fact, it is this common background that gave them their success?
  • * Does this argument make income inequality morally and economically unjustified?

Praise for Unjust Deserts * Reviews *

As our financial system lurches into an unknown future, traditional views of wealth and personal rewards are being questioned. Consequently, there is no better time for a conversation about the creation of wealth today—who is entitled to it and who will control it. As our national financial crisis puts into stark relief, aren’t we are all in the economy together, whether rich or not?

With a bold salvo challenging the status quo, authors Professor Gar Alperovitz and Demos fellow Lew Daly tip the scales with the answers to these questions in what will be one of the most talked about books of the season: UNJUST DESERTS: How the Rich Are Taking Our Common Inheritance and Why We Should Take It Back (The New Press, publication date: November 18, 2008; $24.95 hardcover, 220 pages).

Alperovitz and Daly are in good company when they write that culture has more to do with individual success than we generally acknowledge. One of the wealthiest men on the planet, Warren Buffett, with a current net worth of $60 billion, acknowledges that “society is responsible for a very significant percentage of what I’ve earned.” Bill Gates, Sr. agrees when he writes, “Success is a product of having been born in this country, a place where education and research are subsidized, where there is an orderly market, where the private sector reaps enormous benefits from public investment. For someone to assert that he or she has grown wealthy in America without the benefit of substantial public investment is pure hubris.”

Drawing on cutting-edge research as well as their knowledge of philosophy and economics, Alperovitz and Daly prove that up to 90 per cent ‘or even more ? of private earnings are the result not of individual ingenuity, effort or investment, but of what they describe as the “unjust” appropriation of our collective inheritance. In other words, the cumulative or aggregate knowledge that we all inherit is key to individual achievement.

The authors demonstrate that if the market rewarded people according to their contributions it would make up only 10-20% of their income. The rich don’t work harder and are not morally justified in deservingness, or ‘deserts’ as philosophers describe it than the rest of us. We get the commonly held viewpoint that we are entitled to own whatever wealth we create from philosopher John Locke. In his agrarian society and that of our Founding Fathers, wealth was mostly based on physical labor. In our knowledge-based society, Locke’s argument doesn’t work, since all knowledge that we receive from previous generations is a social contribution.

The individual’s role in advancing art, science and technology again is mostly based on our common heritage, too. The authors make an historically-based case for the wave of cultural and scientific knowledge that pushes a few people to the next level, the “geniuses” who create what happens next. Some enlightening examples of this argument include:

  • * Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray, who both filed for a telephone patent on the same day, though they were working independently
  • * Gary Kindall who created the same computer operating system that Bill Gates then “perfected”
  • * Charles Darwin racing to complete The Origin of the Species because Alfred Russel Wallace was developing the same scientific argument.

Alperovitz and Daly rightly conclude that the individual isn’t really important in the case of each breakthrough. Instead, the development of knowledge is society’s forward-moving catalyst.

The second half of the book bolsters their thinking further by detailing how knowledge is shared. They note and quote widely from philosophers and economists starting with 18th century Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin though 20th century Nobel Laureate Herman Simon and Cass Sunstein, to name a few. The reader understands that there has always been this debate about what society owns and what is rightly owned by the individual.

What reforms do the authors suggest could begin the process of income redistribution along the lines of social justice? They say that income taxation for the top 1-2% should be increased, raising the current cap on Social Security taxes, increasing corporate taxes ? especially on windfall gains in connection with oil industry profits, and increasing inheritance taxes on large estates would be a beginning. Proceeds from the new taxes could be used for the common good, such as instituting universal health care or propping up decaying infrastructures like bridges and tunnels. In addition, education and research could receive additional funds. There is a promising plan put forth by Yale law professors Bruce Ackerman and Anne Abbott that suggests and ‘capital stake’ or allocation of $80,000 to every citizen upon reaching adulthood ? to be used most likely for a college education. The capital stake would be recouped at death through an inheritance tax.

Bound to be a flashpoint of discussion and contention, this bold new book will be the talk of the political circles this fall and to come.


Gar Alperovitz is the Lionel R. Bauman Professor of Political Economy at the University of Maryland and a Founding Principal of the Democracy Collaborative. His previous Books include The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and America Beyond Capitalism. He lives in Washington, D.C.

Lew Daly is senior fellow at Demos, the New York City progressive think tank, and the author of God and the Welfare State. He lives in New York City.

UNJUST DESERTS How the Rich Are Taking Our Common Inheritance and Why We Should Take It Back By Gar Alperovitz and Lew Daly Publication Date: November 17. 2008 ISBN: 978-1-59558-402-1 230 pages Price: $24.95 hardcover

Praise for Unjust Deserts:

“Rarely do the facts of the matter so illuminate a moral truth as they do in Unjust Deserts. Quite simply, this book changes the fundamental terms of reference for future debates about inequality. It convincingly demonstrates that knowledge is the primary source of our national wealth, with or without the elites at the top who claim the lion’s share. In a surprising yet persuasive way, Alperovitz and Daly help us understand what this reality means, and the values at stake, in a nation growing more unequal with each passing day. This book opens an extraordinary new vista on the moral bankruptcy of our second Gilded Age.”
— Bill Moyers

“A brilliant and wonderfully timely book—the perfect gift for people who were born on third base and thought they’d hit a triple.”— Robert H. Frank, Cornell University

“The viewpoint presented in this important and provocative book by Alperovitz and Daly should alter the current public discourse on income distribution.”— Kenneth J. Arrow, Nobel Laureate

“Unjust Deserts is an elegant work of moral philosophy, a reflection on science, technology, cumulative causation and the collective character of the common wealth. It is work with deep implications for structures of pay, ownership and taxation, perfectly timed for the end of the grab-what-you-can era.”— James K. Galbraith, UT Austin

“This deeply informed and carefully argued study of the social and historical factors that enter into creative achievement formulates issues of entitlement in ways that have far-reaching implications for a just social order. It merits careful study and reflection, and should be a call for constructive action.”— Noam Chomsky, MIT

“Alperovitz and Daly drive a stake through the heart of the strongest and most enduring argument against income and wealth redistribution: the idea that each of us alone—or mostly alone—is responsible for what we earn and accumulate… Their timely, deftly argued book redefines our vision of the common good.— Jacob S. Hacker, U.C. Berkeley

Unjust Deserts reveals the untold story of wealth creation in our time. Our celebrated entrepreneurs and money men are hoisting a cherry to the top of an already existing sundae-and then laying claim to the entire ice cream parlor.”— Barbara Ehrenreich & Chuck Collins

Media with the authors

VIDEO: Gar Alperovitz Launches Book
at Politics & Prose Bookstore (60 min.)

Politics & Prose Book Launch (11/16/08)

November 16, 2008, presentation with Q&A about Unjust Deserts in Washington, DC.
VIDEO: Alperovitz and Daly at the
Center for American Progress (53 min.)

C-SPAN Book-TV Video (12/12/08)

The authors discuss Unjust Deserts with Q&A moderated by John Halpin
VIDEO: Alperovitz and Daly Interviewed by Laura Flanders on GRITtv (16 min.)
GRITtv Interview (01/05/08)
VIDEO: Gar Alperovitz Discusses Book at New Mexico Co-op (30 min.)
Alperovitz talks with food co-op members in Santa Fe about issues of wealth and inequality in our economy
AUDIO: Joy Cardin Interviews Gar Alperovitz on Wisconsin Public Radio
VIDEO: Alperovitz Interviewed by Neil Cavuto on Fox Business (7 min.)
Gar Alperovitz with Neil Cavuto on Fox Business (03/06/09)

Reviews of Unjust Deserts

Accidental Billionaire
Boston Review (May/June 2009)

Claude S. Fischer reviews Unjust Deserts and Gladwell’s Outliers

The authors have a strong wind at their backs: the current recession is displacing so many workers and depleting so many investors’ fortunes through no obvious faults of their own that it becomes harder and harder to believe that everyone is getting their just deserts…Unjust Deserts has a clear political commitment, but it is well-reasoned, well-documented, well-argued.
Spreading the Wealth:
Knowledge as Social Inheritance

Review in The Nation (12/15/08)

By Mark Engler

Warren Buffett, ranked by Forbes in 2008 as the world’s wealthiest man… has said… “I really wouldn’t have made a difference if I were born in Bangladesh. Or if I was born here in 1700…. I just got lucky as hell…. Stick me [someplace else] and I could say I know how to allocate capital and value business. But they’d say, so what?”
Why Have-It-Alls Don’t Know It All
Review in Too Much (11/24/08)

By Sam Pizzigati
(PDF)We actually owe our wealth, Gar Alperovitz and Lew Daly explain in this deliciously subversive new book, to what we know… And we owe what we know, the two quickly add, ?not to our own efforts or genius, but to the efforts and knowledge accumulation of those who came before us.?… In today’s deeply unequal United States, this simple observation may well rate as our society’s most ?inconvenient truth.’

Review by Polly Cleveland

Dollars & Sense (5/11/09)

Georgists will find this book a treasure trove of arguments and quotations from scholars, obscure and famous, expressing views similar to those of [Henry] George.

Review by Hazel Henderson

Ethical MarketsThis meticulously researched, fascinating book revisits an eternal question for all human societies, the relative roles and rights of individuals vis-à-vis society.
As a former advisor to the US Office of Technology Assessment, the National Science Foundation and the National Academy of Engineering, I can only say ‘Amen,’ and add my own proposal over many years: correct the classification of education from an ‘expenditure’ to the ‘investment’ column in GDP national accounts since investing in education is always our most important asset: the next generation.

Review by Paul Rosenberg
Open Left (12/07/08)

This seemed particularly timely, given the vast, arbitrary shifts in wealth we’ve been seeing the last few months.

Review by Ryan McGreal
Raise The Hammer (01/08/09)

Consider, as a single example, the curious conceit of a small handful of people (myself included) who nominally believe that we created Raise the Hammer, the website you are now reading… I call it a conceit because the site’s creation (let alone its continued existence) would not have been possible without the efforts of untold and probably uncountable numbers of contributors; and curious because once made explicit, this fact is as obvious as it is unremarked.

Review by Joel S. Hirschhorn BC: Blog Critics Magazine (11/21/08)

Feral Cat’s Book of the Month
TPM Cafe (02/04/09)

Review by James H. Robbins
Philanthropy News Digest (01/30/09)We can probably all agree, especially in these economic times when even our new president criticizes Wall Street banks for giving their employees fat bonuses, that the rich do not deserve all they have.

Michael Cummins – Conservative Reaction
Campaign for Liberty (01/21/09)

I am not a political alarmist. But there is a new book out by Gar Alperovitz and Lew Daly… that is garnering a disturbing amount of attention and intellectual respect, enough that we conservatives might need to take special notice… I fear that, left unchallenged, it could provide the intellectual underpinnings for a stepped-up campaign of aggressive governmental expropriation.

Will Wilkenson (CATO)
Commentary and Vlog exchange with Lew Daly (02/02/09)

Deserts and Distribution
By Matt Zeitlin (02/02/09)

“Rational Control” by Patrick Deneen
What I Saw in America (01/27/09)

Review by Homeland Colors
Great Movies, Great Books (12/18/08)Gar brilliantly explains the concept of shared knowledge and ‘rent seeking’… It is a must own book that contains a great deal of information. It is an essential part of your library.