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Why Do Some on the Left Believe in Income Equality?

In my last post, I discussed why one should care about economic mobility for the poor rather than  income equality.  The basic point is that we should care how well the poor are doing rather than their relative position compared to the rich.  If we can increase the wealth of the poor by $100, we should do so even if that involves giving the rich an extra $200.

So why do some people on the left focus on income equality rather than mobility for the poor.  One possibility is that focusing on income equality allows them to argue directly for the result that they like – equality.  If they had to discuss whether certain institutions, such as free market institutions, helped the poor, it would at best make their arguments messier and at worst sometimes support free markets.  It is safer and simpler to argue for income equality and implicitly assume that money provided to the rich is always taken out of the pockets of the poor.

But this explanation simply moves us back a step: why don’t these people on the left care enough about the poor to focus on their situation, even at the risk of allowing these “argument costs.”  There are several possibilities.

First, some on the left might simply dislike free market institutions.  Therefore, they don’t want to acknowledge that these institutions might help the poor.  And it is easier to do this by focusing on equality, which avoids the issue of helping the poor through inequality.  Thus, consciously or subconsciously, the left may dislike free market institutions more than care about helping the poor.

This may sound pretty unattractive, but it is a common enough aspect of political arguments.  A similar charge is levelled against the right by libertarian Ronald Bailey.  He suggests that because people on the right fear the government regulation that climate change would justify, they don’t accept the science on climate change.  My point is not to endorse Bailey’s charge, but to show that this possible mistake of the left involves a familiar psychological tendency.

Second, some on the left might believe that free market institutions do not actually work to improve the condition of the poor and therefore can be ignored by a focus on economic equality.  Put differently, since inequality cannot help the poor, one should just focus on equality.  While this may explain why the left focus on inequality, it does not justify it.  It would be better if the left just made the longer argument that economic mobility for the poor is the relevant value and free markets don’t serve that value.

Finally, some on the left might simply be attracted to the ideal of equality.  There is something intuitively appealing about the idea, even if one doesn’t’ think it withstands scrutiny.  Thus, they favor the ideal of equality more than improving the condition of the poor.  And, of course, a combination of these explanations may be at work.

Of course, even if the left did focus on the condition of the poor, that would not necessarily change their end position.  John Rawls’s difference principle, for example, famously argues that inequalities that benefit the rich can be justified if they benefit the poor.  But Rawls hardly supports free market institutions.  The main way he avoids them is by arguing that free market institutions do not actually help the poor.  But, of course, Rawls was a philosopher who had no special expertise about such matters.  The late economist James Buchanan made the opposite claim.  Of course, economists are all over the map on this issue.

Reader Discussion

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on April 17, 2015 at 11:48:00 am

Of course, there is another reason: Power.

Posit a problem, present it as a crisis, offer a *solution,* be seen as the solution provider and assure that you are the one implementing it.
A new definition of modern governance!

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gabe
on April 17, 2015 at 11:53:07 am

Most people on the Left hate the Free Market Economy because they either will not or cannot compete in a Free Market environment. So instead of competing they tear down the economically successful by demeaning businessmen and making fallacious statements centered around the zero sum theory that wealth is spontaneous and just exists and that all wealth belongs to everyone. And that somehow the "rich" have "taken" more then their "fair share" of "the wealth" and thus it is up to the "society" as a whole to seek "social justice" and "economic democracy" by having the beneficial hand of the state (laws and law enforcers with guns) to right the wrongs of this social injustice called Free Enterprise Capitalism. Of course the Left never points out how "prosperous" Cuba,Venezuela and North Korea are compared to say Hong Kong or Singapore. Its always the same. The disgruntled sociopath mediocrity seeking power to run the lives of other people. Its all about power. And,in the end,all that is left in the wake of the fairytale called Socialism are Gulags and stacks of corpses. But,I guess,in the end,as the dead are always equal,the Left will have achieved there dream of equality.

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libertarian jerry
on April 17, 2015 at 12:01:24 pm

Gabe...........Your talking about the Hagelian Dialectic. It's an old tactic used by both the Left and the Right to achieve control of a situation and thus the power that the control brings.

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libertarian jerry
on April 17, 2015 at 12:59:28 pm

[I]t is a common enough aspect of political arguments. A similar charge is levelled against the right by libertarian Ronald Bailey. He suggests that because people on the right fear the government regulation that climate change would justify, they don’t accept the science on climate change. My point is not to endorse Bailey’s charge, but to show that this possible mistake of the left involves a familiar psychological tendency.

"[T]he most objectionable feature of the conservative attitude is its propensity to reject well-substantiated new knowledge because it dislikes some of the consequences which seem to follow from it - or, to put it bluntly, its obscurantism.... I can have little patience with those who oppose, for instance, the theory of evolution...."

F.A. Hayek, Why I Am Not a Conservative (1960).

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nobody.really
on April 17, 2015 at 13:48:28 pm

At the risk of exhibiting undue focus on individualism at the expense of Rappaport's embrace of collectivism, let me suggest that the Left does not share the ideas attributed to it here. Indeed, the Left doesn't have any ideas. (Pause for applause from Republicans in the chamber.) Nor does the Right. (Pause for applause from Democrats in the chamber.) Rather, individuals have ideas. (Pause for lonely applause from Rand Paul.)

If the viewpoint attributed to the Left is really so prevalent, it shouldn't be too hard to identify a specific person's views to use as an archetypical example. For example:

[W]hy do some people on the left focus on income equality rather than mobility for the poor[?]

This line should be preceded by a quote from some Lefty saying something like "Screw the poor; all I care about is economic equality!" Cuz, in the absence of such a quote, I'm skeptical that anyone actually embraces this view.

Implicit, but unstated, in Rappaport's argument is the idea that a person couldn't pursue both objectives simultaneously, or regard them as mutually reinforcing. Yet the idea is as old and familiar as the tale of Robin Hood: Take from the rich, give to the poor, and voila! You've simultaneously increased the resources for the poor AND promoted economic equality. Is that really such a hard concept to grasp?

True, at the margins, I'd expect the goal of promoting the welfare of the poor and promoting economic equality would become trade-offs. Lefties may resist acknowledging this dynamic for political reasons. In particular, they may conclude that we are so far from reaching the point where we must make trade-offs that there is no point focusing on it -- except to undermine support for wealth transfers.

And, indeed, I suspect Rappaport would love to undermine support for wealth transfers. Now, I share his thesis that ideally people would be open to considering the trade-offs, and perhaps concluding that there are better ways to help the poor than via wealth transfers. I share the view that the free-ish market ("globalization") has been the biggest factor in raising the income of the poorest people in all of history. But this perspective has not reduced my support for, for example, progressive taxation or social safety nets. I find little difficulty in holding both views simultaneously -- and I encourage others to give it a try.

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nobody.really
on April 17, 2015 at 14:22:45 pm

Finally, I acknowledge that many policies putatively designed to promote the welfare of the poor in fact have additional, or even substitute, agendas.

How much did Obama's HHS budget for food stamps last year? Nothing. Why? Because food stamps is not part of HHS; its part of the Dept. of Agriculture. While putatively a program for helping the poor, food stamps can be better understood as a program to promote food sales, thereby enriching Big Ag. Yes, arguably the program benefits for the poor -- but concern for the poor is not what has preserved the program over the decades. When the Farm Bill was being renegotiated with a lower budget, creating a trade-off between funding food stamps and funding farm subsidies, Big Ag was only too happy, with the support of House Republicans, to propose throwing food stamps overboard.

Many in the US became emotionally and financially involved in the problems of apartheid-era South Africa, or in the Arab Spring uprisings. Did this evidence concern for others? Or was concern for South Africa really concern for US race relations, displaced? Was concern about Arab Spring nations just a generic rebellion against authority figures (parents?), displaced? After all, it was far from clear that citizens in these regimes were really the ones facing the most dire circumstances. And as the simple narratives have become muddied, have Americans continued their compassion for the human beings involved – or, now that the story no longer provides a metaphor for American psychodynamics, have Americans lost interest?

More generally, I suspect people are motivated by pangs of compassion – which are triggered not by poverty and suffering, but by evidence of poverty and suffering. I don’t say this to be snarky or pass judgment; I say it to suggest a phenomenological perspective of motivation. Thus, some policies are designed to alleviate poverty and suffering. Other policies are designed to reduce the extent to which we are reminded of poverty and suffering.

I suspect that’s the real objective of zoning policies, anti-panhandling policies, limits on immigration, etc. True, opening our borders might greatly improve the lives of poor people living outside the country. But then we’d have to see all those poor people – and we’d feel the need to do something about them. If instead we can develop policies that keep us from seeing them, we won’t have to do anything. Wouldn’t that be nicer?

This may sound cynical, but it should hardly surprise anyone who has studied economics: He who pays the piper calls the tune. Poor people don’t vote or contribute to political campaigns, so why should we imagine that policies are designed to reflect their perspectives? Until poor people start rioting, why would we focus care about their perspectives at all?

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nobody.really
on April 17, 2015 at 14:56:02 pm

" But this perspective has not reduced my support for, for example, progressive taxation or social safety nets. I find little difficulty in holding both views simultaneously — and I encourage others to give it a try."

A straw man of some utility here. I do not see anyone presently arguing against a safety net nor progressive taxation. (They may indeed object to either or both but I cannot infer that from Rappaport's comments).
One can simultaneously support safety nets / progressive taxation (although even a *flat tax* is ultimately progressive) and be opposed to forced income equality.

Oops, and let us not forget that Robin Hood was more on par with Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde - a bandito around whom a "myth" of helping the poor was created. Ahh! if only King John had a J. Edgar Hoover to rid himself of this champion of the people. Silliness aside, this myth represents the age old resentment of the poor against the more successful with "income equality" being only the modern day clarion call.

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gabe
on April 17, 2015 at 15:01:08 pm

Nice one, Nobody! I agree with the phenomenological underpinnings of compassion as you have expressed. It may play a substantial role in many of our prescriptions / policies.
Although I would suggest that re: immigration another concern may very well be for *our own.* and not just the avoidance of unseemly images.
It is complicated.

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gabe
on April 17, 2015 at 15:11:49 pm

A straw man of some utility here. I do not see anyone presently arguing against a safety net nor progressive taxation.

Ok, but that's precisely the point: If support for progressive taxation of social safety nets is not inconsistent with "free markets," then what Lefty policy is Rappaport objecting to specifically? This entire discussion consists of shadow-boxing with straw men.

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nobody.really
on April 17, 2015 at 19:43:23 pm

Actually, the left seems far more interested in the middle class than the poor. They almost never mention the poor, but they mention the middle class incessantly.

Still, I agree they should be more concerned with mobility than inequality.

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Mark Cancellieri
on April 17, 2015 at 20:02:13 pm

You have a point as well; although the assertion that some on Left "may" not like free markets was only one of Rappaports points. Granted one of the other points was that some DO NOT like free markets but it was also conceded by Rappaport that some may simply be enthralled with the notion of equality while perhaps not being opposed to free markets (although I recognize that there may be a considerable amount of tension in such a state).

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gabe
on April 18, 2015 at 20:10:35 pm

It would be nice if conservative intellectuals, such as those who write at this website, would focus on the problems of the middle class, whose fortunes have much more to do with the future of conservatism than those of the poor (a permanent Democrat constituency group). Indeed, it is the policies of the Left that are most hurting the middle class and the prospects of their children.

Alas, say something about "inequality," and most conservative intellectuals take it as a cue to launch into irrelevant disquisitions about the best way to help "the poor," a la the foolish Jack Kemp. This post is a sad example. The movement for reform conservatism apparently has not made a dent.

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djf
on April 18, 2015 at 20:45:48 pm

Well, I guess that is because most of us felt it appropriate to discuss the topic that was presented.
I do not see anything in any of the comments or post that would preclude the possibility that an argument about the poor may indicate a disregard or lack of concern with the problems of the middle class, nor, more specifically, the problems that *income inequality* prescriptions present for the continuance of a solid middle class.

As both nobody and I have argued, it is possible to entertain multiple opinions / threads of thought even if only one thought is expressed.

simply put, I see nothing here that indicates an abandonment of the middle class,

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gabe
on April 18, 2015 at 22:13:31 pm

You can talk about helping the poor all you want, but (1) it is a politically irrelevant issue, and (2) helping the poor is not going to reduce "inequality" in the society.

On the other hand, idea aimed at maintaining the middle class, rather than allowing their amalgamation into an undifferentiated mass with the poor, is politically relevant and will reduce "inequality" in the society (although perhaps not in a way that's of interest to the Left).

I was picking up on the comment of Mr. Cancellieri, who made the obvious point that the Left aims its dishonest, disingenuous blather about "inequality" at the middle class, not the poor. This flies right past most conservatives and free market types.

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djf
on April 18, 2015 at 22:32:39 pm

Carly Fiorina Full Speech: New Hampshire Republican Leadership Summit 2015

http://commoncts.blogspot.com/2015/04/carly-fiorina-full-speech-new-hampshire.html

ps. Link Exchange with CC?

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Steve
on April 19, 2015 at 02:36:56 am

djf..............There are really only 2 classes of people in America. First there is the Economic Class that creates the wealth and then there is the Political Class that lives off of the wealth created by the Economic Class. The Left does care about the poor and the middle class contained within the Political Class. The "Poor" or the dependency class who vote to keep the Left in power and the middle class government employees and retired government employees who also vote to keep the Left in power. The only "poor" in the Economic Class that the Left cares about are the minimum wage or low wage earners who the Left desire to "help" by forcing through legislation and regulations that force private sector employers to pay above market wages. That and labor unions who also use the state to force employers to pay above market wages. Its all about political power gained through the forced redistribution of earned wealth to a constituency that votes to keep Leftist politicians in office. Or,as H L Mencken once said "there are those that work for a living and then there are those that vote for a living."

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libertarian jerry

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