Posts Tagged ‘Equality’

How much equality do we want?

January 9, 2017



Grant that extreme economic inequality is a bad thing.  Grant that ever-increasing economic inequality is a bad thing.

Grant that complete equality of incomes is not feasible and maybe not desirable.  How much equality is enough?

The economist Friedrich Hayek wrote in The Road to Serfdom (as I recall) that it is impossible that people could reach a consensus on what each and every person deserves.   Once you reject complete equality, he  wrote, the only acceptable distribution of income is what results from the impersonal working of the free market.

A democratic government could never determine a distribution of income that is satisfactory to everyone, or even a majority, Hayek thought; if it tries, the result can only be gridlock and a breakdown of democracy.

But there are ways to reduce inequality that neither set limits on any individual’s aspirations nor give some group of bureaucrats the power to decide who gets what.   Some that come to mind immediately are:

  1. Prosecute those who get rich by lawbreaking.
  2. Set limits on unearned income.
  3. Break up monopolies.
  4. Empower labor unions and cooperatives.
  5. Provide good public services to all, regardless of income.
  6. Provide decent jobs for all who are willing and able to work.

What are your ideas?


Equality and equality of opportunity

January 25, 2016

A lot of people say they don’t believe in equality as such.

Instead they believe in equality of opportunity.

But you can’t have equality of opportunity without equality of starting points.

Nor can you have equality of bargaining power, nor equality of political power.


Click to enlarge.

An American with growing up in a poor neighborhood in a big city, or in a poor, isolated rural area, with parents who are unemployed and poorly educated, does not have the same opportunity to rise in the world as I did, as a boy born to middle-class, college-educated parents in a small town.

Nor did I myself have the same opportunities as the sons of millionaires, such as George W. Bush, Mitt Romney or Donald Trump.

I don’t think that this is something you can change, at least not in a fundamental way within our existing system.

There are things that can be done to increase equality of opportunity without changing cash income.  These include services—help to pregnant mothers, public schools, nutritious school lunches, public libraries, higher education—that are equally available to everyone.


Click to enlarge.

They also include laws to protect people from being denied opportunities because of race, religion, national origin, gender, or sexual orientation.

But the completely level playing field does not exist.  A certain degree of inequality of opportunity is inevitable in a free enterprise society, as is a certain degree of inequality of political power.

How do you strike the balance between rewarding people for what they actually accomplish, and judging their accomplishments based on the obstacles they have had to overcome?

I don’t have a good answer for this.  What is reasonable to expect is that (1) a smart ambitious person starting out at the bottom of the income scale should do better than a lazy ignorant person starting out at the top of the income scale and (2) all hard-working, honest people should be able earn enough to provide a decent material standard of living.


Poor kids who do everything right don’t do better than rich kids who do everything wrong by Matt O’Brien for the Washington Post.

Unpacking education and teacher impact by P.J. Thomas for the National Education Policy Center.