The Compatibility of Freedom and Equality (13): More Income Equality Makes Us More Free

Another reason not to worry too much about the supposed incompatibility of equality and freedom is the fact that an equal level of monetary resources promotes freedom. Money in the form of a relatively decent income allows us to choose from and engage in a wide variety of activities. It makes it possible for us to buy the commodities and services we want to buy, and consequently do with them what we want to do. (Of course, within the legal limits that determine what can be commercially traded and how traded goods can be used; e.g. we can’t buy people, and we can’t use the guns we buy to kill people). As a result, we have a wider choice of life plans and more means to pursue our chosen plan.

This is freedom in one sense of the word: more choice. Freedom in another sense, namely the ability to do what we want without interference, looks absolutely anemic compared to this. After all, what good is the absence of interferes when the world we live in offers us only very few options or none of the monetary resources to choose and pursue options. This freedom from interference is hardly valuable, if it is freedom at all.

So, if we agree that monetary means promote freedom in a certain sense of the word because these means broaden our sets of choices, then I guess we’ll also agree that a more equal distribution of money, wealth and income promotes freedom: it gives people who receive more money in the new, more egalitarian distribution more freedom, without necessarily diminishing the freedom of those whose resources are diminished in the new distribution. The monetary freedom of the rich isn’t necessarily reduced after income redistribution and after reductions of income inequality, because of diminishing marginal utility. The ability to buy a fifth yacht doesn’t increase anyone’s freedom in any sense of the word. And taking away this ability doesn’t reduce anyone’s freedom. On the contrary, if the monetary means that could have been used for this fifth yacht are instead given to a number of other people who don’t have a lot of money, then these means will benefit the freedom of those other people, and aggregate freedom will have increased.

So that’s a good reason to reduce income inequality. However, it’s probably not a good reason to eliminate income inequality completely, for four reasons. First, even if, ideally, people have a right to the same extent of monetary freedom as it is defined here, that doesn’t mean they should have the same amount of money. In order to be able to do the same things and have the same choices, different people need different amounts of money. The handicapped, for instance, may need more than average.

The second problem with equal money is that it would mean deep and frequent violations of property rights, and property rights are important, perhaps just as important as freedom (and no, property rights and freedom are not the same thing: the former are a means to interfere with the freedom of others, namely the freedom of others to use goods that belong to you).

A third problem created by equal income is related to incentives. And finally, equal income doesn’t combine well with considerations of desert (one definition of desert is that people deserve different levels of monetary wealth for their contributions to society, culture etc.).

We could react to these different considerations by framing the issue as one of value pluralism: income equality and freedom are important values, and so are desert and property. The difficulty would then be to balance these different values which, it turns out, are sometimes contradictory. That would mean limiting the equalization of income at some point before total income equality, at a level that is compatible with respect for property rights (also limited), with due consideration of incentive problems (also limited), and with recognition of the moral value of desert (also limited).

There’s possibly some Gini value that would hit this balance. This Gini value of x gives a level of income inequality at which monetary freedom is maximized for a maximum number of people. A value lower than x (the lower the Gini value, the more equal the income distribution) resulting from higher levels of income redistribution would not increase the monetary freedom of the poor because the amount of money taken from the rich has become so high that it doesn’t just eat away at marginal utility but also produces disincentives high enough to reduce the size of total social wealth.

We could try this kind of delicate balancing between redistribution on the one hand and incentives produced by rewards for deserving actions on the other hand. (Alternatively, we could also drop income equality as a value and instead focus on a so-called sufficientarian approach in which we would try to give people enough monetary means to achieve a certain level of freedom – freedom as it is understood here – regardless of the means and freedom of the people at the top of the income or wealth distribution. However, I’ll leave that option aside for the moment).

However, there are some problems: we’re dealing here with a somewhat strange notion of freedom. Freedom is obviously much more than the use of monetary means to choose and pursue goals. Also, we don’t want to promote consumerism. The problem with consumerism is that the truly important parts of life can’t be bought, and that focusing on consumption tends to sideline those important parts. It also has ecological disadvantages.

And another problem I already mentioned: some people will be worse off if money is equalized because they need comparatively more money just to have the same capabilities. Hence, rather than equalizing money we should perhaps equalize capabilities.

More posts in this series are here. More on income inequality here. And here‘s a related post about the link between poverty and freedom.

Measuring Poverty (14): Measuring Income Inequality

Income inequality may or may not be the best definition of poverty,  but it’s certainly one that is often used. In many European countries, you’re counted as poor when your income is below 50% or so of the median income. Maybe this is the wrong way to measure poverty, but if you use absolute measures for poverty (such as a basic income, minimum consumption etc.) you’ll also face some problems. So it’s worthwhile to examine some of the usual methods for measuring income inequality and see how they hold up, while at the same time bracketing the discussion about poverty as either absolute deprivation or unequal distribution.

Methods for measuring income inequality

The Gini coefficient is the most widely used. It’s based on the proportion of the total income of a population that is cumulatively earned by a % of the population; a value of 0 expresses perfect equality where everyone has equal shares of income and a value of 1 expresses maximal inequality where only one person has all the income. A low Gini coefficient indicates therefore a more equal distribution. (The complete formula is here).

A disadvantage of the Gini measure is that it doesn’t capture where in the distribution the inequality occurs: is a society unequal because the top 1% has astronomically high incomes, because the poor are very poor, because there is practically no middle class, or because of some other reason?

Other measures are

  • the ratio of the incomes of the top 10% (best paid) to the bottom 10% (worst paid)
  • the proportion of a population with income less than 50% of the median income
  • a population may be split into segments, e.g. quintiles or deciles, and each segment’s income share is then compared to each other segment’s (for example, the top 10% of the population – “top” in income terms – has x % of total income)
  • some other measures are here.

These different measures can give contradictory numbers: two societies with the same Gini score can have different ratios of top-bottom, top-middle or middle-bottom incomes (see an example here). Hence, no single measure will tell us the last word about inequality in a society.

What is income?

The focus of all these measurement systems is income, but we should first decide what to count as income. Income doesn’t have to be cash or currency. A farmer in a poor country who grows his own products has non-cash income. Perhaps public services such as healthcare or education should count as income. And how about tax reductions, tax refunds, government benefits such as unemployment insurance, food stamps and various vouchers?

All those forms of non-cash or non-labor income are important when measuring income inequality because the poor profit disproportionately from those non-cash or non-labor related forms of income. Hence, including them in total income can make a large difference in income inequality numbers. (Higher income groups may have less or different tax refunds and their education may represent a smaller portion of their total income – the returns of their education may of course be higher, but those returns are typically cash based in the sense that they lead to higher labor compensation).

We should also decide if we want to use income before or after taxation; depends if we want to measure the effectiveness of redistribution or simply gross inequalities. And what about capital gains, imputed house rents from home ownership, inheritance etc. In general, how should wealth be included in income? Or shouldn’t it be?

How do we measure income?

Once we’ve solved the difficult problem of defining income, we’re still left with the practical problem of measuring it. Most cash income is captured in tax return data, but not all, and not equally well in all countries. Sometimes, you’ll need to use consumption data as a proxy for income data, or surveys about living standards. “Informal” income typically does not show up in tax data, but does in consumption data.

Another problem with measures of inequality is that they may be contaminated by notions of fairness. Some deliberately design their measurement system in such as way that inequalities look bigger than they actually are. For example, they use pre-tax inequalities because those are often larger than post-tax inequalities – a lot of tax systems are redistributive towards the poor (e.g. progressive taxation systems). Or they focus on income inequality when consumption inequality may have diminished. Others may mistakenly deduce evaluations of fairness or injustice from the simply fact of income distributions and forget that measures of income inequality are silent about who is on which side of the divide. If person A in a two person economy has twice the income of person B, then the measurement of inequality would be absolutely the same when B switches places with A. Measures of income inequality say nothing about who deserves what, about how income has been acquired, about whether some occupations should yield higher compensation (for example because we want the right incentives), or about how income should ideally be distributed.

And then there is the opposite mistake: assuming that income inequality is always necessary and just because it’s the automatic result of the fact that people have different levels of human capital and productive abilities. This is a mistake because it ignores a number of facts: no one has ever been able to prove that some abilities or occupations deserve higher wages from a moral point of view, and a lot of inequality is the result not of different abilities or efforts but of differences in luck and connections. Hence, fairness remains a legitimate concern. Contrary to the “left-wing mistake”, the “right-wing mistake” will not distort the measurement of inequality: if you believe inequality is not a problem you hardly have a reason for measuring it, let alone distort the measurement.

What I want to stress is how difficult it is to measure income inequality and how many mistakes we can make. This doesn’t mean that the numbers are rubbish. We should just be careful when drawing sweeping conclusions, that’s all.

Something more about the causes of income inequality, rather than the measurement of it, is here.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (23): Capital Gains

It’s hard to investigate the causes of income inequality without looking at the sources of income. In turns out that, in the U.S. at least but probably also in other developed countries, the majority of a population gets almost all of its income from wages, while people at the top of the income distribution get most of it from capital gains and dividends.

Dividends are payments made by a corporation to its shareholder members, usually a portion of corporate profits. Capital gains are profits that result from investments into a capital asset, such as stocks, bonds or real estate, which exceeds the purchase price. A capital gain is the difference between a higher selling price and a lower purchase price, resulting in a financial gain for the investor.

Given these differences in the sources of income, income inequality will rise if incomes from capital gains and dividends rise more rapidly than wage incomes, perhaps because taxes on the former are cut. And indeed, most of the recent increase in the Gini score for the US (higher Gini numbers imply a less equal distribution) comes from higher capital gains and dividends and from lower taxes for high earners (lower taxes not only on capital gains, by the way; many taxes have become less progressive in the U.S.).

This cause of income inequality suggest a problem that goes deeper than inequality:

I think a lot of people sense that there’s something unsettling about this shift from labor income to capital incomes. It seems endemic of a society that devalues work while providing outsized rewards for speculation and asset accumulation. (source)

More posts in this series are here.

Income Inequality (26): And Social Mobility

One can argue that high levels of income inequality aren’t much of a problem when social mobility is easy (social mobility being the degree at which people cross into higher or lower income levels than the ones they were born into). Inequality is then the result of skills and effort, the absence of skills and effort, or lifestyle choices. In other words, given easy mobility, inequality is what people deserve or want. If there are few or no obstacles to mobility, people basically choose their position in society: they choose to develop their skills and invest effort, or they don’t.

However, this whitewashing of inequality doesn’t work because the more unequal a society, the less social mobility there is (source).

What is the mechanism here? In part, high levels of income inequality make social mobility more difficult: when income inequality is relatively high, people at the wrong end of inequality can offer comparatively less opportunities to their children than the people at the right end – less quality schooling, less quality healthcare etc. The children of wealthy parents have relatively more advantages compared to poor children then they would have in a less unequal society, and they are therefore more likely to end up in a high income group as adults. I assume that social mobility is a good thing and that people’s income should not be determined by the income of their parents.

So instead of saying that inequality is not a problem because there is mobility, we should instead say that mobility is a problem because there is inequality.

More on social mobility here. More posts in this series are here.