But there are lots of different kinds of inequality, and an enormous variety of different mechanisms at work. Lumping them all together, and attacking the symptom, “inequality,” without attacking the problems is a mistake. It’s like saying “fever is a problem. So medicine shall consist of reducing fevers.”
More puzzling, why are critics on the left so focused on the 1% in the US, when by many measures we live in an era of great leveling?
Earnings inequality between men and women has narrowed drastically, as Kevin Murphy reminded us. Inequality across countries, and thus across people around the globe, has also been shrinking dramatically even as income inequality within advanced countries has risen. One billion Chinese were rescued from totalitarian misery, and a billion Indians sort-of-rescued from British-style license-Raj socialism. These are wonderful events for human progress as well as, incidentally, for global inequality. Sure, these countries have many political and economic problems left, but the “its’ all getting worse” story just aint’ so. China and India did not start growing by confiscatory taxation of income and wealth, and increasing state intervention in markets. Exactly the opposite. And the parts of the world left or falling behind – parts of the Middle East, Latin Amirica (think Venezuela), parts of Africa – have just nothing to do with the private-jet purchases of US hedge fund billionaires.
“Inequality” is about more than income or wealth, reported to tax authorities. Consumption is much flatter than income. Rich people mostly give away or reinvest their wealth. It’s hard to see just how this is a problem.
But in fact Linker attributes to Hayek and other libertarians a definition of spontaneous order (sometimes called the “extended order,” as in Hayek’s Fatal Conceit) that is made of the finest straw. In Hayek’s writing—and that of most libertarians and classical liberals who preceded them—the term is essentially a modern vision of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand.”
That is, it helps to explain how goods and services and all sorts of social organization form absent centralized planning (or how alternatives crop up in the face of centralized planning). Especially in the context of the 18th and even the 20th century, the idea that markets and people could function autonomously from rulers dictating virtually every aspect of life wasn’t take for granted. Explaining how complicated social and economic activity could happen absent such oversight and control was one of the main projects of liberal thought.
My GMU Econ and Mercatus Center colleague Pete Boettke commemorates the birthday of Ludwig von Mises (who was born on this date in 1881).
Paul Samuelson said somewhere something like “In economics, things aren’t always as they seem.” He was correct. Scott Sumner offers some instances of this reality.