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Inequality: a missing perspective

Inequality: a missing perspective

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The debate about inequality comprises, to a large extent, two camps. In one there are those like Martin Wolf who believe inequality is a problem which can be solved. In the other are those who doubt that inequality is a problem - either because "material equality has no intrinsic value" or because, as Tyler says, "what might appear to be static blocks of wealth have done a great deal to boost dynamic productivity."

This division, though, overlooks what seems to me a reasonably tenable position, which goes something like this:

Yes, inequality is a problem. This is partly because it is often a sign of market failure - as in banks' "too big to fail" subsidies or in an agency failure in CEO pay. But it also threatens to undermine democracy, social harmony and equality of respect.

However, sometimes, the solution is more costly than the problem. And inequality might be one of these times. There might be some efficient ways of reducing inequality - such as land value taxes, stronger trades unions or more worker ownership - but these lie outside the Overton window. Pretty much the only means of reducing inequality that is on the agenda is higher income tax. And in a country where tax morale is already low, higher taxes might have disincentive effects; they deter entrepreneurship as well as rent-seeking. What's more high taxes might cause what Assar Lindbeck calls (pdf) "norm drift"; in the long-run they might undermine pro-work and pro-entrepreneurship attitudes; this possibiliy is not captured by the IMF's finding (pdf) that moderate redistribution doesn't hurt near-term growth.There might be a good reason why to tax rates have fallen around the world since the 70s.

What's more, we can do a lot to help the worst off without worrying about the 1%. A citizens' basic income, serious job guarantee programme and better fiscal policy can be implemented whether we do something or not about the 1%. Indeed, given the political power of the mega-rich, social democrats might have more chance of success if they don't poke that particular hornet's nest.

Now, I don't believe this myself; I suspect it takes too pessimistic a view about Laffer curves. But it seems to me a position which reasonable people might take; it's close to Blairism.

This poses the question: why is it so little heard? It could be because it gets drowned out by the tribalism of the inequality debate; it breaks the first rule of political writing because it tells both sides of the debate what they don't want to hear.

But there might be another reason. The weakness of this view might be related to what I've called the death of conservatism - the demise of the Oakeshottian melancholy tendency which sees some problems as insoluble, and its replacement with a managerialist faith that problems can be "addressed" as soon as we see them as such.

Personally, I find the loss of such a disposition a matter of regret, as it impoverishes our political debate.


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