Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Same as it ever was

Via Brad deLong, here is Amartya Sen taking down the essential conservative economic argument in 1982. Sen is responding to P.T. Bauer, who way back then was making the same Mitt Romney 47 percenter teabagger case we're still hearing about today. Bauer was a "serious" economist so he does not, as far as I know, reference Ayn Rand, but it's the same basic idea -- economic inequalities are "largely the result of people's capacities and motivations . . . . It is by no means obvious why it should be unjust that those who produce more should enjoy higher incomes."

There you have it: the Makers vs. the Takers. But as Sen goes on to show, it is evident, transparently obvious really, that people's incomes are not proportionate to their productivity. (Even if they were, one could still make a strong moral case for limiting inequality, but that isn't even necessary.) For one thing, this assertion requires that owning productive assets constitutes personal productivity. Even if it did, it is hard to see how inheritance constitutes moral entitlement.

For another, incomes vary for all sorts of reasons that do not correspond to whatever it is that an individual personally produces, which is very easy to show.

Yet these nonsensical claims made Bauer one of the most respected economists of his time, and continue to bring prestige to professors today such as Greg Mankiw. How anyone can pay deference to such ridiculous arguments may seem hard to explain but of course it is not: wealthy people endow chairs in economics, and wealthy people dominate public discourse.

Do read Sen's essay, and arm yourself for the struggle.

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