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What Marx Got Right about Redistribution – That John Stuart Mill Got Wrong by Alan Reynolds

The idea that government could redistribute income willy-nilly with impunity did not originate with Senator Bernie Sanders. On the contrary, it may have begun with two of the most famous 19th century economists, David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill. Karl Marx, on the other side, found the idea preposterous, calling it “vulgar socialism.”

Mill wrote,

The laws and conditions of the production of wealth partake of the character of physical truths. There is nothing optional or arbitrary about them. … It is not so with the Distribution of Wealth. That is a matter of human institution only. The things once there, mankind, individually, can do with them as they like.

Mill’s distinction between production and distribution appears to encourage the view that any sort of government intervention in distribution is utterly harmless — a free lunch. But redistribution aims to take money from people who earned it and give it to those who did not. And that, of course, has adverse effects on the incentives of those who receive the government’s benefits and on taxpayers who finance those benefits.

David Ricardo had earlier made the identical mistake. In his 1936 book The Good Society (p. 196), Walter Lippmann criticized Ricardo as being “not concerned with the increase of wealth, for wealth was increasing and the economists did not need to worry about that.”

But Ricardo saw income distribution as an interesting issue of political economy and “set out to ascertain ‘the laws which determine the division of the produce of industry among the classes who concur in its formation.’

Lippmann wisely argued that, “separating the production of wealth from the distribution of wealth” was “almost certainly an error. For the amount of wealth which is available for distribution cannot in fact be separated from the proportions in which it is distributed. … Moreover, the proportion in which wealth is distributed must have an effect on the amount produced.”

The third classical economist to address this issue was Karl Marx. There were many fatal flaws in Marxism, including the whole notion that a society is divided into two armies — workers and capitalists. Late in his career, however, Marx wrote a fascinating 1875 letter to his allies in the German Social Democratic movement criticizing a redistributionist scheme he found unworkable.

In this famous “Critique of the Gotha Program,” Marx was highly critical of “vulgar socialism” and considered the whole notion of “fair distribution” to be “obsolete verbal rubbish.” In response to the Gotha’s program claim that society’s production should be equally distributed to all, Marx asked,

To those who do not work as well? … But one man is superior to another physically or mentally and so supplies more labor in the same time, or can labor for a longer time. … This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labor… It is, therefore, a right to inequality.

Yet Marx offered a glimmer of utopian hope about the future in which things would become so abundant that distribution would no longer be a matter of concern:

In a higher phase of communist society … after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of cooperative wealth flow more abundantly — only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banner: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!

That was not a prescription but a warning: For the foreseeable future Marx knew nothing would work without work incentives. If income were equally distributed to “those who do not work,” why would anyone work?

Contemporary public economics — “optimal tax theory” and the newest of the “new welfare economics” — also teaches that to tax a man “according to his abilities” would give able men a very strong incentive to use their skills to hide their earnings (and therefore their abilities) from tax collectors. This predictable response to tax penalties on high earnings is confirmed by economic research on the elasticity of taxable income.

Distributing government spending “to each according to his needs” must likewise give potential recipients a strong incentive to exaggerate their needs. People who got caught doing that used to be called “welfare cheats” and considerable cheating still goes on in food stamps, Medicaid, etc. The Earned Income Tax Credit, for example, gives low-income working people an extra incentive to not report cash income from tips, casual labor or illicit activities.

In The Undercover Economist, Tim Harford rightly notes that “when economists say the economy is inefficient, they mean there’s a way to make somebody better off without harming anybody else” (called “Pareto optimality”). But argues that Nobel Laureate Kenneth Arrow figured out a way to efficiently redistribute income with “appropriate lump-sum taxes and subsidies that puts everyone on equal footing.” As Harford says, “a lump-sum tax doesn’t affect anybody’s behavior because there’s nothing you can do to avoid it.”

Unfortunately, Harford says “an example of a lump-sum redistribution would be to give eight hundred dollars to everybody whose name starts with H.” That simply shows that if the subsidies were not ridiculously random then the subsidies will affect behavior and will not be lump-sum. The government could collect a lump-sum tax of $800 from every adult and then send a lump-sum subsidy of $800 to every adult with no net effect, for example, but why do that? If the government tried to tax people on the basis of abilities or to subsidize on the basis of needs, even Marx knew that would have a terrible effect on incentives.

The whole idea was curtly dismissed by another Nobel Laureate, Joseph Stiglitz, in his 1994 book Whither Socialism? (p. 46): “The ‘old new welfare economics’ assumed that lump-sum redistributions were possible,” wrote Stiglitz; “The ‘new new welfare economics’ recognizes the limitations on the government’s information.”

The reason governments cannot simply take money from some people according to how able they are, and give it to others according to how needy they are, is because people who were aware of that plan would not be foolish enough to accurately reveal their abilities and needs.

Actual taxes and transfer payment distort behavior in ways that undermine economic progress and commonly produce results (such as trapping people in poverty) that are the opposite of their stated intent.

This post first appeared at Cato.org.

Alan ReynoldsAlan Reynolds

Alan Reynolds is one of the original supply-side economists. He is Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and was formerly Director of Economic Research at the Hudson Institute.

Inequality: The Rhetoric and Reality by James A. Dorn

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

James A. Dorn is vice president for monetary studies, editor of the Cato Journal, senior fellow, and director of Cato’s annual monetary conference.

Rubio: On Tax Day 2014

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) on Tax Day 2014 notes, “Tax reform is critical. And it’s not just critical to take the hassle out of our lives. It’s critical for the economic future of our country. Our economy is stagnant. It’s not growing fast enough. It’s not creating enough jobs. And by the way, about 40% of the jobs that it is creating pays $16 an hour or less.”

Is reform of the tax code needed or a scraping of the entire income tax? Many are calling for either a flat tax or FairTax system.

To mark Tax Day 2014, Rubio sent out the below video addressing constituent concerns about the broken tax code system. Rubio points to the tax codes stifling effect on the economy as proof of the need for tax reform:

[youtube]http://youtu.be/RteG2ceXtk8[/youtube]

In the video, Rubio outlines various disconcerting facts about the increasingly complicated tax code and the unnecessary burdens it places on taxpayers:

  1. It takes 13 hours for the average taxpayer to file their taxes, including record keeping, planning, as well as filling out forms.
  2. Last year, Americans spent 6.1 billion hours and $168 billion complying with all their tax filing requirements.
  3. The tax code, rules and regulations now totals more than 73,000 pages, as opposed to 400 pages when it was created in 1913.
  4. Americans will pay $3 trillion in federal taxes and $1.5 trillion in state and local taxes this year.
  5. Americans must work 111 days this year to pay their federal, state and local taxes.

Rubio:

“One of the things holding back our economy is a broken tax code. We have a tax code, for example, that punishes companies for investing their profits back into their businesses, to hire more people, to give their workers raises, to expand their operations. We have a tax code that actually encourages our employers to take their business overseas. Those are some of the things we have to fix as well. So I agree with you wholeheartedly, and that’s why I hope this November we’ll have new leadership here in Washington that will move on this important item.”

RELATED STORY: Obama has Proposed 442 Tax Hikes Since Taking Office