« Yesterday's Lou Dobbs | Main | Calling Geraldo »

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Pigouvian Redistribution

There has been a lot of support lately for the ideas that Arthur Cecil Pigou (1877-1959) set forth in his book The Economics of Welfare. Pigou held the chair of political economy at Cambridge (succeeding Alfred Marshall) and was the leading neoclassical economist of his day. The book is an attempt to provide a theoretical basis for government intervention to improve social conditions. His introduction of Pigouvian taxes is part of that effort.

I wonder if the Pigou fans who have been so enthusiastic about Pigouvian taxes will also endorse other ideas from his book. For example, here's part of his argument for redistributing income from the rich to the poor. It could, perhaps, serve as the Pigouvian Redistribution Club's manifesto:

[I]t is evident that any transference of income from a relatively rich man to a relatively poor man of similar temperament, since it enables more intense wants, to be satisfied at the expense of less intense wants, must increase the aggregate sum of satisfaction. The old "law of diminishing utility" thus leads securely to the proposition: Any cause which increases the absolute share of real income in the hands of the poor, provided that it does not lead to a contraction in the size of the national dividend from any point of view, will, in general, increase economic welfare.

This conclusion is further fortified by another consideration. Mill wrote: "Men do not desire to be rich, but to be richer than other men. The avaricious or covetous man would find little or no satisfaction in the possesion of any amount of wealth, if he were the poorest amongst all his neighbours or fellow-countrymen." More elaborately, Signor Rignano writes: "As for the needs which vanity creates, they can be satisfied equally well by a small as by a large expenditure of energy. ... In reality a man's desire to appear 'worth' double what another man is worth, that is to say, to possess goods (jewels, clothes, horses, parks, luxuries, houses, etc.) twice as valuable as those possessed by another man, is satisfied just as fully, if the first has ten things and the second five, as it would be if the first had a hundred and the second fifty."

Now the part played by comparative, as distinguished from absolute, income is likely to be small for incomes that only suffice to provide the necesaries and primary comforts of life, but to be large with large incomes. In other words, a larger proportion of the satisfaction yielded by the incomes of rich people comes from their relative, rather than from their absolute, amount. This part of it will not be destroyed if the incomes of all rich people are diminished together. The loss of economic welfare suffered by the rich when command over resources is transferred from them to the poor will, therefore, be substantially smaller relatively to the gain of economic welfare to the poor than a consideration of the law of diminishing utility taken by itself suggests.

    Posted by on Tuesday, November 14, 2006 at 01:59 AM in Economics, Income Distribution, Taxes | Permalink  TrackBack (3)  Comments (49)

    TrackBack

    TrackBack URL for this entry:
    http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d83451b33869e200d8342c78fb53ef

    Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Pigouvian Redistribution:

    » The Pigou Club: Egalitarian Utilitarianism from Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal

    Mark Thoma attempts to lead Greg Mankiw's Pigou Club off in a different direction: [Read More]

    Tracked on Tuesday, November 14, 2006 at 11:04 AM

    » Egalitarianism vs. Utilitarianism from Yet another Sheep

    Suppose there is only one good, income, and all people have the same strictly concave utility function with intersubjective comparisons possible (at least cardinally unit comparable, for the cogniscienti). The sum of utility is maximzed with a comple... [Read More]

    Tracked on Wednesday, November 15, 2006 at 08:33 AM

    » Supply side fairy tales from Interfluidity

    Greg Mankiw offers a strong endorsement of a proposal to cut the corporate income tax from 35 to 25... [Read More]

    Tracked on Monday, June 02, 2008 at 12:19 PM


    Comments

    Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

    -->