Wednesday, August 12, 2009

income inequality # 4

And my friend Larry says:

I'm assuming by the "utilitarian argument" you mean Chait's "efficiency" argument, and in any case I definitely agree that the phrase "income redistribution" needs unpacking.

But I think it's important here to stay focused on the theme of economic equality, as distinct from the theme of helping the poor. How we might best do the latter, or how much obligation we have as either individuals or a society to do that is a matter for another discussion. But, for example, it might turn out that the best way to help the poor would be by increasing inequality -- making both the rich and the poor richer, but with the effect that the rich become even more so; similarly, and on the other hand, it might be that the the best way to reduce inequality/increase equality would only be by making the poor even worse off, with the "consolation" that the condition of the rich gets still worse.

To my mind, It's the latter scenario that makes Chait's focus on "caring" about inequality so iniquitous, and it explains why, in this context, as opposed to a context of helping the poor, Chait's television example is so apt, however revealing. I think there's a real moral illness underlying such a pseudo-"caring", though it's widespread certainly, as illustrated by an old peasant joke: A farmer working his field discovers a genie in a bottle, which genie promises to grant the farmer any wish on one condition: that whatever he gives to the farmer he gives double to the farmer's neighbours. The farmer thinks for just a minute, then says "put out one of my eyes."

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