If there was an award for the most dramatic political development of 2016, it would presumably be the election of Donald Trump. If there was an award for the best policy reform of 2016, my vote would be the constitutional spending cap in Brazil.
If there was an award for the greatest outburst of sensibility in 2016, it would be the landslide vote in Switzerland against a government-guaranteed income.
But what about an award for the most compelling article of 2016? Well, we still have a few days left in the year, so it’s theoretically possible that I’ll change my mind, but as of today the award would go to my friend Deirdre McCloskey for her December 23 column in the New York Times.
She addresses the fundamental issue of whether policy should be designed to reduce poverty or increase equality. Here’s some of what she wrote.
Eliminating poverty is obviously good. And, happily, it is already happening on a global scale. …We need to finish the job. But will we really help the poor by focusing on inequality? …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… 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.
But Deirdre doesn’t limit herself to philosophical arguments.
She looks at the practical issues, such as whether governments have the ability (or motives!) to correctly re-slice the economic pie.
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. …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. …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.
Deirdre notes that people sometimes are drawn to socialism, in part because of how we interact with family and friends.
But you can’t extrapolate those experiences to broader society.
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.
When redistributionist principles are imposed on broader society, bad things happen.
As a matter of arithmetic, expropriating the rich to give to the poor does not uplift the poor very much. …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.
In other words, you get a shrinking pie rather than a growing pie. As Thomas Sowell also has observed, people don’t produce as much when the government seizes the fruits of their labor.
And in that kind of world, it’s theoretically possible that poor people will have a greater share, but they still wind up a smaller amount (moreover, in practice the government elite wind up with all the wealth).
So what’s the bottom line?
Deirdre cites South Korea as an example of a nation where poor people now enjoy much better lives thanks to growth, and she then asks readers the key question: Will the poor benefit more from the classical liberal principles of rule of law and free markets, or will they benefit more from coercive redistribution?
Her explanation is magnificent.
It is growth from exchange-tested betterment, not compelled or voluntary charity, that solves the problem of poverty. …Which do we want, a small one-time (though envy-and-anger-satisfying) 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. …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 exchange-tested betterment in a liberal society. Some dare call it capitalism.
The resolution of this growth-vs-redistribution debate may very well determine the future of our nation. So, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say Deirdre’s column is the most important article of 2016.