Monday, August 9, 2010

Martin Wolf On Income Redistribution

There's not too much I can add to the thoughts expressed in Martin Wolf's essay at the Financial Times today. In some ways, this sums it up:

The vote is more evenly distributed than wealth and income. Thus, one would expect the tenor of democratic policymaking to be redistributive and so, indeed, it is. Those with wealth and income to protect will then make political power expensive to acquire and encourage potential supporters to focus on common enemies (inside and outside the country) and on cultural values. The more unequal are incomes and wealth and the more determined are the “haves” to avoid being compelled to support the “have-nots”, the more politics will take on such characteristics.

What Is The Role Of The State?

There are many reasons that I think libertarianism, when taken to its extremes at least, is thoroughly wrong-headed, but this is one I hadn't quite considered before. The action of a functioning democracy will always be to try to redistribute income. If the distribution is fundamentally unfair, as it is in many Third World countries, or is becoming that way, as it is in the U.S., then I don't consider such a thing an evil to be stamped out or legislated against. And if there's one thing that is clear from my own observations of mature economies, it's that money tends to accumulate in an uneven distribution naturally. To some extent, that's good - ambition and smarts aren't evenly distributed. There should be some reward for being more productive. On the other hand, it's hard to imagine that the person who runs a corporation is hundreds of times more productive than the professionals it employs, as the distribution of incomes in American corporations these days would suggest.

So, while I agree with Jefferson's maxim that the government that governs best is the one that governs least, I only take that maxim so far. As Wolf points out, there are other ways to make a nation's economy nonfunctional, and in this age of overpaid CEOs and runaway financial instruments, we're seeing that sometimes government regulation is the best way of keeping markets free. Allowing money, and thus power, to concentrate in too few hands makes that government regulation less likely to be effective.

UPDATE: Paul Krugman nailed anti-government idiocy yesterday in his column:

How did we get to this point? It’s the logical consequence of three decades of antigovernment rhetoric, rhetoric that has convinced many voters that a dollar collected in taxes is always a dollar wasted, that the public sector can’t do anything right.

The antigovernment campaign has always been phrased in terms of opposition to waste and fraud — to checks sent to welfare queens driving Cadillacs, to vast armies of bureaucrats uselessly pushing paper around. But those were myths, of course; there was never remotely as much waste and fraud as the right claimed. And now that the campaign has reached fruition, we’re seeing what was actually in the firing line: services that everyone except the very rich need, services that government must provide or nobody will, like lighted streets, drivable roads and decent schooling for the public as a whole.

America Goes Dark

I think part of the problem in America has been the tendency of many individuals, and this is not just true of conservatives or libertarians, to favor sloganeering and name-calling over facts and logic. Did anyone "Serious" ask President Reagan who that "welfare queen" was, and why she hadn't been investigated for fraud? A reasonably bright fifteen year old child should be able to ask questions like that. But no, people who were inclined to believe such things simply believed it, no matter that no real proof was ever offered.

When the majority of the country is inclined to believe such obvious bullshit, there's little that we can discuss intelligently. We're now paying the price for that, too.

No comments: