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Friday, July 22, 2016

In Defense of Equality (without Welfare Economics)

Branko Milanovic:

In defense of equality (without welfare economics): When I taught recently at the Summer School at Groningen University, I began my lecture on the measurement of inequality by distinguishing between the Italian and English schools as they were defined in 1921 by Corrado Gini...
I put myself squarely in the camp of the “Italians”. Measurement of income inequality is like measurement of any natural or social phenomenon. We measure inequality as we measure temperature or height of people. The English (or welfarist) school believes that the measure of income inequality is only a proxy for a measure of a more fundamental phenomenon: inequality in welfare. The ultimate variable, according to them, that we want  to estimate is welfare (or even happiness) and it is distributed. Income provides only an empirically feasible short-cut to it.
I would have been sympathetic to that approach if I knew how individual utility can be measured. There is, I believe, no way to compare utilities of different persons. ... The only way for the “welfaristas” to solve this conundrum is to assume that all individuals  have the same utility function. This is such an unrealistically bold assumption that I think nobody would really care to defend it...
Now, the welfarst approach continues to be associated with pro-equality policies. Why? Because if all people have the same utility function, then the optimal distribution of income is such that everybody has the same income. ...
My students then asked how I can justify concern with inequality if I reject the welfarist view which is the main ideological vehicle through which equality of outcomes is being justified. (A non-utilitarian, contractarian alternative is provided by Rawls. Yet another alternative, based on equal capabilities—a close cousin to equality of opportunity (of which more below) is provided by Amartya Sen.)
My answer was that I justify concern with income inequality on three grounds.
The first ground is instrumental: the effect on economic growth. ...
The second is political effect. In societies where economic and political  spheres are not separated by the Chinese wall (and all existing societies are such), inequality in economic power seeps and ultimately invades and conquers the political sphere. ...
The third ground is philosophical. As Rawls has argued, every departure from unequal distribution of resources has to be defended by an appeal to a higher principle. Because we are all equal individuals (whether as declared by the Universal Charter of Human Rights or by God), we should all have an approximately equal opportunity to develop our skills and to lead a “good (and pleasant) life”. Because inequality of income almost directly translates into inequality of opportunities, it also directly negates that fundamental equality of all humans.  ...
I have to say here that in addition inequality of opportunity affects negatively economic growth...
My argument, if I need to reiterate it, is: you can reject welfarism, hold that inter-personal comparison of utility is impossible, and still feel very strongly that economic outcomes should be made more equal—that inequality should be limited so that it does not strongly affect opportunities, so that it does not slow growth and so that it does not undermine democracy. Isn’t that enough?

    Posted by on Friday, July 22, 2016 at 08:59 AM in Economics, Income Distribution | Permalink  Comments (77)


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