Income Inequality (25): And Economic (In)Efficiency

As I stated before, economic theory suggests that income inequality is a necessary price to pay for economic efficiency: unequal rewards incite those with talents, skill and perseverance to innovate and to be productive, so they can reap higher benefits. Ultimately, this serves the welfare of the whole of society (a process which is then caricatured in trickle down economics). The mirror image of this is reductions of inequality that take away incentives for doing well, and that therefore result in economic inefficiency and less prosperity for all.

Tyler Cowen has framed it like this:

Redistribution of wealth has some role in maintaining a stable democracy and preventing starvation. But the power of wealth redistribution to produce net value is quite limited. The power of wealth creation to produce net value is extraordinary … We should be putting our resources, including our advocacy and our intellectual resources, into wealth creation as much as we can. (source)

But is that really true? There is some evidence that reducing inequality through redistribution actually promotes wealth creation. What’s the mechanism? Sam Bowles claims to have identified one element of it:

Inequality breeds conflict, and conflict breeds wasted resources … [I]n a very unequal society, the people at the top have to spend a lot of time and energy keeping the lower classes obedient and productive. Inequality leads to an excess of what Bowles calls “guard labor”. (source)

More about that effect here and here. Other parts of the mechanism through which inequality impedes and equality promotes growth may be the following:

Poverty causes credit constraints. This stops the poor investing in businesses or education; the low aspirations caused by poverty can have the same effect. … Inequality can create the threat of redistribution which can blunt incentives to invest. Or it can lead to state interventions – such as the minimum wage – that harm wealth creation. … The backlash against wealth-creating processes such as globalization, offshoring and private equity in the UK and US are founded in the view that they create inequality. If we had better redistribution mechanisms (say, a basic income) such backlashes would be reduced, and the wealth creation process enhanced. (source)

That sounds persuasive and I want to see some evidence. In the meantime, it’s perhaps a bit glib to announce that “the power of wealth redistribution to produce net value is quite limited”.

The Ethics of Human Rights (27): The Human Rights of Future Generations and Poverty

I’ve argued many times before that poverty is a human rights issue, so I won’t do that again. For those who are not convinced, just assume arguendo that I am right, otherwise the rest of this post won’t make a lot of sense. I’ve also presented my views on the types of duties produced by the human right not to suffer poverty, and on the moral agents that carry those duties: is it a face-to-face thing, or does the government have a role to play by way of redistribution and the welfare state? Etc. You can read about this here and here for instance, so that’s something else I won’t repeat.

I do believe the welfare state is an important institution because it can fill the gap left by deficient private charity. But my view is that private charity should come first and should be promoted. The welfare state should be a fallback option rather than the starting point. So I guess I don’t think it’s as important as people from the left usually think it is. In order to bolster my view, I can point to some problems with the welfare state. In fact, it can be argued that the welfare state is another case of a self-defeating human rights policy, in the sense that it reduces poverty but at the same time produces poverty. Tyler Cowen, in a very interesting paper, has argued that while the welfare state does indeed reduce the levels of poverty of those people currently living (at least if we focus on the level of the state and forget the global impact of the operation of a welfare state in a particular country), it also has a negative impact on the poverty of future generations.

The argument goes as follows. It’s reasonable to accept that economic growth lifts people out of poverty and that the welfare state lowers the rate of economic growth, perhaps not by much annually but small reductions of economic growth over several years may amount to a large cumulative reduction. Now, how does the welfare state lower the rates of economic growth? There are at least four effects:

[1] A welfare state will cause some people to substitute welfare dependency for private work, thus lowering the number of individuals in the active work force or causing them to work less hard. … The poor could be engaging in more productive exchange with other individuals in the economy, but to some extent they desist, for fear of losing welfare benefits. …

[2] The taxes used to support the welfare state discourage taxpayers from working or otherwise creating economic value. …

[3] The extensive welfare states of Western Europe typically are bundled with labor market protections and interventions. It is not politically or economically feasible to give the non-working significantly more risk protection than the working. Western European welfare states therefore tend to create a privileged class of working “insiders,” with high real wages, high benefits, and near-guaranteed positions of employment. This practice, of course, lowers the number of new jobs that are created, limits labor market mobility, and raises unemployment.

[4] [The welfare state] causes the economy to develop new technologies and new ideas at a slower rate. … A welfare state will plausibly have a negative effect on innovation. By withdrawing individual labor from the productive sector of the economy, the rate of discovery is likely to fall. Both the poor and the taxpaying non-poor will work less when a welfare state is in place [see 1 and 2 above]. If we think of research and development, broadly construed, as one kind of work, we can expect the rate of growth to decline. Even if the poor do not participate in ideas production directly, they do so indirectly. To provide a simple example, to the extent it is harder or more costly to hire good janitors, and other forms of cheap labor, fewer research laboratories will be opened. … The welfare state permanently discourages various individuals from contributing to technological development and thus lowers the rate of economic growth in lasting fashion. (source)

One can argue about the importance or even the existence of these four effects, and there may even be counter-effects (welfare recipients may move in the underground economy, unemployment may lead to better parenting and hence better education etc.). But even if the effects are small, it’s sufficient to spread them towards the very long term future in order to produce a lowering of the economic growth rate and an increase in future poverty. Given that the future contains an infinitely large population, the welfare state will always produce more poverty than it eliminates (given that the current population and hence also the current poor are a limited number). That would mean that the concept of the welfare state is doomed. And if that’s the case, it would seem I have proven too much (I merely wanted to buttress my argument that the welfare state should come second, after private philanthropy).

However, I don’t think it’s obvious that we should value the rights of future people the same way as the rights of existing people. After all, these future people may never come into existence. If we try to protect their welfare by giving up the welfare state, we will harm real people for the rights of people who may never exist. Furthermore, the future may bring a novel solution to the poverty problem.

The Ethics of Human Rights (26): The Repugnant Conclusion and Human Rights

The Repugnant Conclusion is a moral dilemma for utilitarian and consequentialist moral theories. The dilemma was first presented by Derek Parfit in his 1984 book Reasons and Persons. The “repugnancy” in question refers to the consequence of a thought experiment. Imagine a society with a large amount of total utility resulting from a very large number of people all living at near-zero levels of utility. In other words, these people have no more than a marginally worthwhile life – Parfit calls it a life of muzak and potatoes but we can of course define “marginally worthwhile” differently if we want. And yet, because they are so numerous, the total utility of this society is very large.

Utilitarian and consequentialist theories must rank this society higher than other more desirable societies with higher average utility but lower total utility resulting from lower population levels. They must because they state that the best society is the one in which there is the greatest total quantity of utility, and utility is defined as whatever makes life worth living. The muzak and potato people have a life worth living – just barely – and if they are numerous enough they will constitute the best society because the sum of their individual utilities will be higher than any other total utility in any other society.

There is always a muzak and potatoes society that has a higher total quantity of utility or welfare than any other possible society: just add more marginally worthwhile lives and you produce a society that outperforms any other in terms of total welfare. That such a society should be preferable is repugnant. The people in that society have lives only barely worth living and yet it’s a superior society compared to one with fewer people all living a better life. The emphasis on “total” welfare or “total” utility means that any loss in the quality of the lives in a population can be compensated by a sufficiently large gain in the quantity of the population. (Note that the lives added are marginally worthwhile. These lives are worth living. We’re not adding lives of continuous pain for example. That would diminish total utility and that isn’t the purpose of this thought experiment.)

The question here isn’t whether such a society is practically possible or likely, but whether we should indeed prefer it, as utilitarianism posits (implicitly). It doesn’t seem intuitively correct to prefer a society of people living a life that’s barely worthwhile over other highly attractive alternatives, just because the former has a very large population.

To some extent, the thought experiment is convincing because we do believe that every human being is valuable (has some value), however low this value may be (remember we’re not talking about lives that aren’t worth living because of continuous pain for instance). Therefore we do tend to believe that addition of new lives does increase total utility (“we” meaning even the non-utilitarians among us, and that probably includes myself). It would be equally repugnant to try to avoid the repugnant conclusion by claiming that after a certain number of additions the lives added don’t bring any more value.

Given the unacceptability of not counting the lives after a certain number of additions, there’s another possible way of avoiding the repugnant conclusion, namely invoking non-utility values such as justice, dignity, desert etc. But according to Tyler Cowen, non-utility values can always be overwhelmed by total utility:

It might be the case, for instance, that the less populated society has significantly greater amounts of justice, aesthetic beauty, or dignity. If this is true, the Repugnant Conclusion alternative simply needs to make up for this deficiency by having more people to increase its utility total. (source)

Any moral theory must weigh conflicting ends, such as utility and justice. There’s no escape. You don’t have a moral theory if you can’t do that. The non-utility value(s) must receive some “value” or importance. And the same for utility – even non-utilitarians can’t say that utility has no value whatsoever because then you would say that a marginally worthwhile life of muzak and potatoes has no value (and that’s intuitively wrong because then you would be allowed to end such a life). Hence you need to compare the total value of the less populated society with high non-utility values to the total value of the more populated society with very low average utility. Just add more people to the latter and it will always be a better society. And this will always be repugnant.

However, I do think non-utility values show us a way out of the repugnant conclusion. The first thing we can say is that without emphasis on non-utility values there won’t be a way out. If utility is all that counts, if in other words you’re a pure utilitarian then you are a value absolutist, just like a libertarian, a socialist, a hedonist etc. One value, in this case utility, trumps all others. Necessarily you’ll end up accepting the repugnant conclusion.

If, on the other hand, you accept value pluralism, then you reject hierarchical or lexically ordered value system in which one value trumps all others. And then you probably also don’t believe that large losses in one value can be balanced by equally large gains in another value, as happens in the repugnant conclusion. That seems to me to be the error in the Cowen quote above: the muzak and potatoes society can simply compensate for the deficiencies on non-utility values by adding more marginally worthwhile lives. I believe – contra Cowen – that invoking non-utility values can help us to avoid the repugnant conclusion, but not if these non-utility values are simply accorded a certain value (possibly a very high value) and then compared to the value of utility. If we only do that, utility can always overwhelm the other values by just adding more persons, and gains in utility can always compensate losses in other values.

My point here is that there are certain other values for which no losses can be accepted or tolerated, not even with near-infinity gains in utility. That is why these other values – such as freedom, dignity, equality and justice – are protected by human rights, and human rights are unconditional and untradeable. No matter how many people with barely worthwhile lives we add to a society, this will not compensate for violations of human rights. Nothing ever will. You can call that value absolutism if you want, but it’s the absolutism of plurality.