Redistribution as theft

Alleviating poverty requires economic growth alone.

It is not often that Indian public discourse seriously discusses big ideas. So it was nice to see, a few days ago, a debate in large sections of the mainstream and social media on economic growth vs redistribution. This debate received wider public attention because it was conflated with a personality clash between Jagdish Bhagwati and Amartya Sen, because it became entangled with the hottest political topic of our times and because it came at a time when the issue itself is important.

When faced with two sharply different points of view, it is common—not least in India—to insist that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. This is celebrated as being reasonable, as representing the compromise that is the hallmark of democratic practice and as being the mystic middle path. So when some economists insist that growth is the best way out of poverty while other champion redistribution of wealth, it is to be expected that there will be reasonable people who will say “we need both more growth and more redistribution”. This is a good way to end the debate amicably and drink to reasonability and democratic compromise.

Unfortunately, there’s a difference between appearing reasonable and being right. “We need more growth and more redistribution” is not a reasonable middle position. It is essentially an argument for redistribution but stated in a different form.

Without growth, redistribution is at best a transfer and at worst, theft. If a community earns the same amount of money (or produces goods of the same value) every year, then redistribution takes from Preetam to pay Palani. If Preetam consents to the arrangement, it is a transfer. If he doesn’t, it is theft. Over a period of time, it will make the community more equal, but it doesn’t necessarily make the community less poor, for even after achieving income equality, the average income can be below what is required to subsist.

Growth is the only way to increase the overall income of a community. It can raise the respective incomes of both Preetam and Palani, although Preetam’s income might rise faster than Palani’s. Inequality will rise in such a community—perhaps because Preetam was born into a better endowed family, perhaps because Preetam works harder or perhaps because Palani faces greater social hurdles—but because both Preetam’s and Palani’s incomes rise, the whole community can climb out of poverty. There is vast empirical evidence for this, and growth is the best antidote to poverty. It’s the most effective anti-poverty scheme known to humankind.

Here’s the best thing: in such a society, there is no inherent need to take from Preetam to pay Palani on the grounds of poverty alleviation. There might be other issues—for instance, progressive taxation to finance public goods based on the ability to pay, but not to help a poor Palani out of poverty.

Hey, wait a minute! Isn’t inequality rising? Isn’t that a bad thing? Aren’t Palani’s prospects not handicapped by historical social hurdles? Aren’t Preetam’s disproportionate gains coming from exploiting Palani? The reasonable people who argue that “we need both more growth and more distribution” usually raise these questions to argue for more redistribution. (There are unreasonable people who raise these questions for other reasons, but let’s stick with responding to the reasonable).

Yes, inequality will rise, especially during periods of high growth. But inequality is a social problem only if it is permanent and ossified. However, growth is the best way to ensure that it is not—with growth comes mobility, and the expectation that one can improve one’s life allows societies to thrive despite the inequalities. Ask migrants to New York or Mumbai. Many also see a moral problem with inequality, but why expect the state to solve moral problems? Let the moral conscience of society address its moral problems.

Shouldn’t we account for historical social hurdles that hobble some citizens? Yes, but these are addressed by creating equality of opportunity, not by insisting on equality of outcomes (where Preetam and Palani end up earning the same income). You can achieve equality of opportunity without redistribution—affirmative action and reservations (without subsidies) are ways to address this challenge.

Isn’t Preetam exploiting Palani? This blog post will not attempt a comprehensive critique of Marxist thought. However, the ideas of economic freedom, property rights, voluntary exchange and comparative advantage together prove that Preetam’s gain is not at Palani’s cost. Although the sort of people who argue that Preetam exploits Palani will seldom acknowledge that redistribution, by definition, means that Palani’s gains come at Preetam’s cost. Unlike redistribution, growth creates non-zero-sum or win-win situations. Only growth creates such situations.

From this alone, we should conclude that “we need growth, not redistribution”. But reasonable people will go to great extents to be reasonable. It’s about sequencing, they’ll say, and contend that some redistribution is necessary for growth. It’s unclear why this is called a reasonable argument—if we accept that both Preetam and Palani will be better off with growth, then the decision to take some from one and give it to the other is unnecessary, whimsical and entirely arbitrary. Instead, why not spend extra effort to ensure that there are no constraints to growth in areas that benefit Palani?

Ergo, what appears reasonable is not quite reasonable: we need growth, not redistribution. The state can ensure growth by getting out of the way of private enterprise, ensuring public goods are provided, acting as an impartial referee, ensuring equality of opportunity and a level playing field. Governments are not good at redistribution: it involves taking money from people who don’t want to give it up and passing it through a system where everyone wants to grab as much as they can get. That is why redistribution is attractive to politicians who are keen to listen to intellectuals who say it is necessary.

If all dentists are asked to fix computers

A lot of people will end up with bad toothaches

What’s this got to do with public policy? Read Atanu Dey’s op-ed in Mint to find out:

The social responsibility of corporations is to make a profit while following the rules. They have a comparative advantage in doing that, just as the government has a comparative advantage in making rules and solving social problems. Insisting that companies solve social problems is like expecting the dentist to fix a broken computer. Yes, he can possibly fix the computer if I lean on him hard enough and he spends a lot of time learning hardware maintenance, but that will be at the cost of a lot of untreated toothaches. [Deeshaa]