The publication of Thomas Piketty’s bestseller Capital in the Twenty-First Century has led to widespread attention on the rising gap between rich and poor, and to populist calls for government to redistribute income and wealth.
Purveyors of that rhetoric, however, overlook the reality that when the state plays a major role in leveling differences in income and wealth, economic freedom is eroded. The problem is, economic freedom is the true engine of progress for all people.
Income and wealth are created in the process of discovering and expanding new markets. Innovation and entrepreneurship extend the range of choices open to people. And yet not everyone is equal in their contribution to this process. There are differences among people in their abilities, motivations, and entrepreneurial talent, not to mention their life circumstances.
Those differences are the basis of comparative advantage and the gains from voluntary exchanges on private free markets. Both rich and poor gain from free markets; trade is not a zero- or negative-sum game.
Attacking the rich, as if they are guilty of some crime, and calling for state action to bring about a “fairer” distribution of income and wealth leads to an ethos of envy — certainly not one that supports the foundations of abundance: private property, personal responsibility, and freedom.
In an open market system, people who create new products and services prosper, as do consumers. Entrepreneurs create wealth and choices. The role of the state should be to safeguard rights to property and let markets flourish. When state power trumps free markets, choices are narrowed and opportunities for wealth creation are lost.
Throughout history, governments have discriminated against the rich, ultimately harming the poor. Central planning should have taught us that replacing private entrepreneurs with government bureaucrats merely politicizes economic life and concentrates power; it does not widen choices or increase income mobility.
Peter Bauer, a pioneer in development economics, recognized early on that “in a modern open society, the accumulation of wealth, especially great wealth, normally results from activities which extend the choices of others.”
Government has the power to coerce, but private entrepreneurs must persuade consumers to buy their products and convince investors to support their vision. The process of “creative destruction,” as described by Joseph Schumpeter, means that dynastic wealth is often short-lived.
Bauer preferred to use the term “economic differences” rather than “economic inequality.” He did so because he thought the former would convey more meaning than the latter. The rhetoric of inequality fosters populism and even extremism in the quest for egalitarian outcomes. In contrast, speaking of differences recognizes reality and reminds us that “differences in readiness to utilize economic opportunities — willingness to innovate, to assume risk, to organize — are highly significant in explaining economic differences in open societies.”
What interested Bauer was how to increase the range of choices open to people, not how to use government to reduce differences in income and wealth. As Bauer reminded us,
Political power implies the ability of rulers forcibly to restrict the choices open to those they rule. Enforced reduction or removal of economic differences emerging from voluntary arrangements extends and intensifies the inequality of coercive power.
Equal freedom under a just rule of law and limited government doesn’t mean that everyone will be equal in their endowments, motivations, or aptitudes. Disallowing those differences, however, destroys the driving force behind wealth creation and poverty reduction. There is no better example than China.
Under Mao Zedong, private entrepreneurs were outlawed, as was private property, which is the foundation of free markets. Slogans such as “Strike hard against the slightest sign of private ownership” allowed little room for improving the plight of the poor. The establishment of communes during the “Great Leap Forward” (1958–1961) and the centralization of economic decision making led to the Great Famine, ended civil society, and imposed an iron fence around individualism while following a policy of forced egalitarianism.
In contrast, China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping allowed the resurgence of markets and opened China to the outside world. Now the largest trading nation in the world, China has demonstrated that economic liberalization is the best cure for broadening people’s choices and has allowed hundreds of millions of people to lift themselves out of poverty.
Deng’s slogan “To get rich is glorious” is in stark contrast to Mao’s leveling schemes. In 1978, and as recently as 2002, there were no Chinese billionaires; today there are 220. That change would not have been possible without the development of China as a trading nation.
There are now 536 billionaires in the United States and growing animosity against the “1 percent” — especially by those who were harmed by the Great Recession. Nevertheless, polls have shown that most Americans think economic growth is far more important than capping the incomes of the very rich or narrowing the income gap. Only 3 percent of those polled by CBS and the New York Times in January thought that economic inequality was the primary problem facing the nation. Most Americans are more concerned with income mobility — that is, moving up the income ladder — then with penalizing success.
Regardless, some politicians will use inflammatory rhetoric to make differences between rich and poor the focus of their campaigns in the presidential election season. In doing so, they should recognize the risks that government intervention in the creation and distribution of income and wealth pose for a free society and for all-around prosperity.
Government policies can widen the gap between rich and poor through corporate welfare, through unconventional monetary policy that penalizes savers while pumping up asset prices, and through minimum wage laws and other legislation that price low-skilled workers out of the market and thus impede income mobility.
A positive program designed to foster economic growth — and leave people free to choose — by lowering marginal tax rates on labor and capital, reducing costly regulations, slowing the growth of government, and normalizing monetary policy would be the best medicine to benefit both rich and poor.
James A. Dorn is vice president for monetary studies, editor of the Cato Journal, senior fellow, and director of Cato’s annual monetary conference.