Anger about economic inequality in the United States dominated the presidential election. But while polemics about the issue have flourished across the political spectrum, clarity has not.
Lack of clarity about inequality has been around for a long time. Look, for example, at the Illinois state constitution, adopted in 1970. It sought to “eliminate poverty and inequality.” Note the linkage of poverty and inequality. It sounds good. Who wouldn’t want to eliminate both of them? But think it through.
Eliminating poverty is obviously good. And, happily, it is already happening on a global scale. The World Bank reports that the basics of a dignified life are more available to the poorest among us than at any time in history, by a big margin. Shanghai, a place of misery not very long ago, now looks like the most modern parts of the United States, though with better roads and bridges. The real income of India is doubling every 10 years. Sub Saharan Africa is at last growing.
Even in the rich countries, the poor are better off than they were in 1970, with better food and health care and, often, amenities like airconditioning. We need to finish the job. But will we really help the poor by focusing on inequality?
Anthony Trollope, the great English novelist, gave an answer in “Phineas Finn” in 1867. His liberal heroine suggests that “making men and women all equal” was “the gist of our political theory.” No, replies her radical and more farseeing friend, “equality is an ugly word, and frightens.” A good person, he declares, should rather “assist in lifting up those below him.” Eliminate poverty, and let the distribution of wealth work.
Economic growth has been accomplishing exactly that since 1800. Equality in the most important matters has increased steadily, through lifting up the wretched of the earth. The enrichment in fundamentals for the poor matters far more in the scheme of things than the acquisition of more Rolexes by the rich. What matters ethically is that the poor have a roof over their heads and enough to eat, and the opportunity to read and vote and get equal treatment by the police and courts. Enforcing the Voting Rights Act matters. Restraining police violence matters. Equalizing possession of Rolexes does not.
The Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt put it this way: “Economic equality is not, as such, of particular moral importance.” Instead we should lift up the poor, in the style of Trollope’s radical liberal, to a level Mr. Frankfurt labeled “enough” — enough for people to function in a democratic society and to have full human lives.
Another eminent philosopher, John Rawls of Harvard, articulated what he called the Difference Principle: If the entrepreneurship of a rich person made the poorest better off, then the higher income of the entrepreneur was justified. It works for me.
It is true that conspicuous displays of wealth are vulgar and irritating. But they are not something that a nonenvious principle of public policy needs to acknowledge.
Poverty is never good. Difference, including economic difference, often is. It is why New Yorkers exchange goods with Californians and with people in Shanghai, and why the political railing against foreign trade is childish. It is why we converse, and why today is the great age of the novel and the memoir. It is why we celebrate diversity — or should.
A practical objection to focusing on economic equality is that we cannot actually achieve it, not in a big society, not in a just and sensible way. Dividing up a pizza among friends can be done equitably, to be sure. But equality beyond the basics in consumption and in political rights isn’t possible in a specialized and dynamic economy. Cutting down the tall poppies uses violence for the cut. And you need to know exactly which poppies to cut. Trusting a government of self interested people to know how to redistribute ethically is naïve.
Another problem is that the cutting reduces the size of the crop. We need to allow for rewards that tell the economy to increase the activity earning them. If a brain surgeon and a taxi driver earn the same amount, we won’t have enough brain surgeons. Why bother? An all wise central plan could force the right people into the right jobs. But such a solution, like much of the case for a compelled equality, is violent and magical. The magic has been tried, in Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China. So has the violence.
Many of us share socialism in sentiment, if only because we grew up in loving families with Mom as the central planner. Sharing works just fine in a loving household. But it is not how grown ups get stuff in a liberal society. Free adults get what they need by working to make goods and services for other people, and then exchanging them voluntarily. They don’t get them by slicing up manna from Mother Nature in a zerosum world.
We could use state violence to take wealth from billionaires like Bill Gates and give it to the homeless, achieving more equality. (Mr. Gates is in fact giving away his fortune, to his credit.) Short of expropriation, we can and should join in supporting a safety net, keeping the violence to a minimum. K12 public education, for example, should be paid for by compelled taxes on all of us. But we should not be doing a lot more.
As a matter of arithmetic, expropriating the rich to give to the poor does not uplift the poor very much. If we took every dime from the top 20 percent of the income distribution and gave it to the bottom 80 percent, the bottom folk would be only 25 percent better off. If we took only from the superrich, the bottom would get less than that. And redistribution works only once. You can’t expect the expropriated rich to show up for a second cutting. In a free society, they can move to Ireland or the Cayman Islands. And the wretched millionaires can hardly re earn their millions next year if the state has taken most of the money.
It is growth from exchange tested betterment, not compelled or voluntary charity, that solves the problem of poverty. In South Korea, economic growth has increased the income of the poorest by a factor of 30 times real 1953 income.
Which do we want, a small onetime (though envyandangersatisfying) extraction from the rich, or a free society of betterment, one that lifts up the poor by gigantic amounts?
We had better focus directly on the equality that we actually want and can achieve, which is equality of social dignity and equality before the law. Liberal equality, as against the socialist equality of enforced redistribution, eliminates the worst of poverty. It has done so spectacularly in Britain and Singapore and Botswana. More needs to be done, yes. Namely, more growth, which is sensitive to environmental limits and will require a proliferation of rich engineers. Let them have their money from devising carbon fixing techniques and new sources of energy. It will enrich all of us.
To borrow from the heroes of my youth, Marx and Engels: Working people of all countries unite! You have nothing to lose but stagnation! Demand exchangetested betterment in a liberal society.
Some dare call it capitalism.
New York Times. Deirdre N. McCloskey is professor emerita of economics, history, English and communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago.