Giving Thanks to Society’s Economic Benefactors
With all the attention commanded by the presidential campaign, election, and aftermath, plus the ongoing covid-19 story, many other issues have faded into the background. Though escaping the headlines, some of these other issues will be with us for a long time, and contributions to the public discussion of such issues often have a long-term impact.
One such issue is a long-time favorite of progressives: income inequality. The most influential recent addition to the discussion is a study announced by the renowned RAND Corporation in September. RAND’s detailed, thorough, meticulous study about income inequality in the United States is titled Trends in Income from 1975 to 2018.
The author’s main thesis is that there has been a wider distribution of incomes in the last four decades than in the three previous decades—the postwar period (1945–75). This is the author’s way of saying that the richest Americans’ incomes have been growing faster than the average incomes of the nonrich.
I don’t dispute the author’s conclusions. But the proper response to that conclusion is: So what? The mathematics may be correct, but there is nothing about disparities in income that is inherently unjust. First of all, there is no known “right” distribution of income. Secondly, the key question to ask about any particular distribution of income is whether the factors that caused it are just or unjust.
To elaborate: to assume that the distribution of Americans’ incomes in the 1946–75 period is “right” or “normal” or “better” or “fairer” than what has occurred or will occur in other periods is completely arbitrary. In a market economy, there will be fluctuations—sometimes rather large fluctuations—of income distribution, each of them reflecting current economic and political conditions. To pick a certain timeframe and designate it as “the way things are supposed to be” is pure whimsy, not science.
The causes of differences of income can be nefarious or benign, unjust or just. They are unjust when political powers rig the system so that the political insiders benefit at the expense of everyone else. Think of eighteenth-century France and contemporary (soci
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