Dan Mitchell’s article “Part III: Poverty Is a Problem, not Inequality”


Part III: Poverty Is a Problem, not Inequality

Ethical people, regardless of ideology, should be motivated by an empathetic desire to help the poor rather than a spiteful thirst to punish the rich.

That was the message in Part I and Part II of this series. That’s also today’s message, and we’ll start with this video

There’s a lot of information in this video, broken down into five thematic points.

  1. Profit (earned through voluntary exchange) is good, while plunder (obtained through government coercion) is bad.
  2. Because people are different, it is important to distinguish between equality of opportunity and equality of outcomes.
  3. People don’t understand inequality, and that leads many of them to overlook the important problem of poverty.
  4. We are getting richer over time, meaning that the middle class is only disappearing because some are becoming rich.
  5. Thanks to the spread of pro-market policies, the entire world is becoming more prosperous with better life outcomes.

For today’s column, let’s focus on item #3 and I want to specifically take this opportunity to explain why we should be aware of how a type of data known as the “Gini coefficient” is used (and sometimes misused).

By way of background, the Gini coefficient measures the distribution of income in a society. As seen in this illustration from Wikipedia, a high coefficient means some people have a lot more income than others and a low coefficient means most people have similar levels of income.

I’ve never been a big fan of the Gini coefficient for three reasons.

First, it’s often used by folks on the left who want higher taxes and more redistribution. Though that’s actually an indictment of how the coefficient is misused.

Second, it doesn’t tell us whether inequality is the result of something good (some people getting rich by providing especially valuable goods and services) or the result of something bad (some people grabbing undeserved loot thanks because of bailouts, subsidies, protectionism, industrial policy, and cronyism).

Third, it does not tell us whether a society is poor or prosperous.

Regarding that final point, Professor Davies pointed out in the video that the most equal nations in the world are Sweden and Afghanistan.

But having similar Gini coefficients is utterly meaningless because it turns out that the similar scores are for radically different reasons – i.e., people in Afghanistan are equally impoverished and people in Sweden are equally prosperous.

And I can’t resist pointing out that Sweden’s superior results are surely correlated with the fact that Swedes enjoy far higher levels of economic liberty (Sweden is #22 and Afghanistan is #136 according to the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom).

You could also do a comparison between nations with very different Gini coefficients.

The United States, for instance, is much more “unequal” than Afghanistan. But I can’t imagine anyone in America wanting to trade places. After all, almost everyone in the U.S. is far richer than almost everyone in Afghanistan.

Or, if you prefer comparing developed nations, I’ve previously noted that poor people in the United States have the same amount of income as middle-class people in nations with lower levels of inequality.

I’ll close with one final bit of data that shows why Gini coefficients should be viewed with caution. Here’s another visual from the Wikipedia page, this one showing how world inequality increased substantially between 1820 and 2002.

Was that increase in inequality a bad outcome?

Of course not. It was simply a result of the Western world becoming rich because of limited government and the rule of law.

And now that developing nations are finally shifting to market-oriented policies, their incomes also are increasing (which, as a side effect, means global inequality is decreasing).

In other words, we should pay attention to the recipe for growth and prosperity, not the Gini coefficient.

P.S. While I’m not a fan of the Gini coefficient, the so-called trade deficit will always be my least favorite statistic.


Part II: Poverty Is a Problem, not Inequality

I began yesterday’s column with a short clip of me explaining why we should focus on reducing poverty, not reducing inequality.

Here’s a more thorough discussion of the same topic.

The video makes three central points, all of which are very sound.

  1. The economy is not a fixed pie, the rest of us don’t become poor when someone else becomes rich.
  2. In a free society, there will be unequal outcomes because we have all make different choices in life.
  3. Fixating on the irrelevant issue of inequality distracts from addressing the real problem of poverty.

I want to focus on #3 because it’s very distressing that some folks on the left are more interested in hurting the rich rather than helping the poor.

Indeed, some of them are so motivated by spite that they even advocate for policies that will hurt poor people so long as rich people are hurt even more.

I normally try to avoid sounding judgemental, but that’s morally reprehensible.

The decent thing to do is figure out the policies that will help people climb the economic ladder.

With that in mind, here are some highlights from a recent FEE column by Gonzalo Schwarz. He begins with the common-sense observation that it’s best to focus on upward mobility.

…economic mobility, poverty, and income inequality…are not the same, and the policy responses to address them vary. …the income inequality narrativehas come to dominate our current public policy discourse, especially in the United States. …The rich are getting richer, but the poor are getting richer too… Policies that aim to remove the barriers faced by people looking to climb the income ladder should be rigorously discussed and pursued.

He then points out that policies to reduce inequality often backfire.

Schwarz cites the minimum wage as an obvious example since it is a recipe for joblessness when politicians mandate pay levels that exceed the value of many low-skill workers.

But my interest in public finance leads me to share this excerpt.

Policy solutions aimed at reducing income inequality will not necessarily positively impact those looking to escape poverty… Quite often, these goals can come into conflict. …A…popular public policy “solution” to address income inequality is to raise the corporate income tax (CIT) and use the proceeds to fund government programs… A recent Harvard Business School working paper…find that a reduction in state corporate income taxes increases real investment, a key driver of economic growth. This is consistent with data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which published a wide-ranging 2008 paper that found that taxes on income tend to hamper economic growth significantly more than other tax instruments.

Schwarz’s conclusion is spot on.

Pursuing an agenda focused on boosting upward social mobility is more conducive to the discovery of the barriers in the way of human flourishing and wealth creation. Breaking down these barriers, both artificial and natural, is the best way to ensure that each and every person has the opportunity to achieve their American Dream. Certainly, we don’t need more income inequality to achieve broader prosperity but chasing the inequality red herring puts that goal at risk.

I’ll add my two cents to this discussion by noting that President John F. Kennedy was right to observe that a rising tide lifts all boats.

Data from the Census Bureau shows that all income groups tend to rise and fall together.

In other words, if you’re hurting the rich, you’re probably hurting the poor as well. And vice-versa.

And if you’re enacting policies that help the rich, then incomes for everyone else are probably rising as well.

P.S. Regular readers already know this, but I’ll make the should-be obvious point for any new readers that there are some types of government policy (bailouts, subsidies, protectionism, industrial policy, cronyism, etc) that produce unjust forms of inequality.

In other words, it’s good when people become rich by providing the rest of us with goods and services we value, but it’s not good for them to get rich by climbing into bed with politicians.


Part I: Poverty Is a Problem, not Inequality

I have a couple of cameos in a new left-leaning documentary film, Race to the Bottom. I shared a clip two day ago with my views on corporate tax and the Laffer Curve.

Today, here’s what I said about the left’s mistaken views on inequality.

The fundamental problem is that I think some of our friends on the left are primarily motivated by disdain for the rich.

Indeed, their envy and resentment is so strong that they’re happy to support policies that hurt the poor, so long as the rich suffer a disproportionate amount of harm.

Consider this sarcastic visual.

I hope this visual greatly exaggerates the problem, but I’ve previously shared substantive research suggesting that the folks on the left are fixated on punishing success.

That agenda does not produce good results.

In a thorough article for Reason, David Henderson of the Hoover Institution explores the issues of poverty and inequality.

Most of what is framed as a problem of inequality is better conceived as either a problem of poverty or a problem of unjustly acquired wealth. …It’s important to distinguish the concepts of inequality and poverty. …Many people who worry about income inequality want to tax higher-income people more. Given what economists know about the harmful effects from raising already high marginal tax rates even higher, tax increases could certainly reduce measured inequality—because they would cause higher-income people to reduce their taxable income by working less, by taking more pay in the form of untaxed fringe benefits, or by investing more in municipal bonds, whose interest is not taxable by the feds. Of course, none of this would make lower-income people better off. Indeed, to the extent that higher taxes discourage capital accumulation, they slow the growth of worker productivity. One of the main ways to increase worker productivity is to increase the amount of capital per worker. With a slower growth rate of capital, worker productivity will grow more slowly—and so will real wages. This makes lower-income people worse off than they would have been.

Henderson uses Lydon Johnson as an example of how some people use government favoritism to line their pockets.

But he wisely notes that any inequality that arises from “unjustly acquired wealth” is a symptom of the real problem of cronyism.

Great wealth, meanwhile, is a problem only to the extent that it is unjustly extracted. Government favoritism to politically powerful people may increase income and wealth inequality, as it did in the case of Lyndon Johnson and his wife. But it is the government favoritism, not inequality per se, that is the true problem.

As a quick aside, Lyndon Johnson almost certainly ranks as one of America’s worst presidents (along with failures such as Hoover, Roosevelt, Nixon, and Wilson).

And, having read Henderson’s article, I now have an additional reason to despise LBJ.

I’ll close by recycling my Eighth Theorem of Government, which is simply another way of expressing my oft-made point that we should try to improve life for the poor rather than worsen life for the rich.

Indeed, I sometimes think this theorem is a good way of discerning who is a good person and who is a bad person.

Regarding the latter, we should recognize that some people are simply misguided. These are the folks who actually think that there’s a fixed amount of income and wealth, so they mistakenly believe that if someone like Bill Gates gets rich, the rest of us somehow lose.

Smart folks on the left know that’s not true, so I give them credit for that, but I also think they are reprehensible for being motivated by a desire to hurt the rich, even when that means the rest of us suffer as well.

The bottom line is that market-driven growth is good for everyone, especially the poor.

P.S. The most accurate political analysis of inequality came from Margaret Thatcher.

P.P.S. Here’s the world’s best-ever tweet about inequality.

P.P.P.S. For more wonky readers, I suggest this data and this data about China and this data about the world.

Milton Friedman in his series “Free to Choose” used a pencil as a simple example to should have the “invisible hand” of the freemarket works (phrase originally used by Adam Smith).
Milton Friedman congratulated by President Ronald Reagan. © 2008 Free To Choose Media, courtesy of the Power of Choice press kit

Here are some great quotes about Milton Friedman:

“Milton Friedman is a scholar of first rank whose original contributions to economic science have made him one of the greatest thinkers in modern history.”
President Ronald Reagan

“How grateful I have been over the years for the cogency of Friedman’s ideas which have influenced me. Cherishers of freedom will be indebted to him for generations to come.”
Alan Greenspan, former Chairman, Federal Reserve System

“Right at this moment there are people all over the land, I could put dots on the map, who are trying to prove Milton wrong. At some point, somebody else is trying to prove he’s right That’s what I call influence.”
Paul Samuelson, Nobel Laureate in Economic Science

“Friedman’s influence reaches far beyond the academic community and the world of economics. Rather than lock himself in an ivory tower, he has joined the fray to fight for the survival of this great country of ours.”
William E. Simon, former Secretary of the Treasury

“Milton Friedman is the most original social thinker of the era.”
John Kenneth Galbraith, former Professor of Economics, Harvard University

Perhaps Friedman’s greatest success began in 1979 when he and his wife Rose authored the book, Free to Choose, based on the famous ten-part TV series for PBS by the same title. Both the TV program and the book were drawn from an earlier series of lectures presented by Friedman. Because it aired during a period of critical economic distress during the Carter Administration and in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, Watergate scandal, and Richard Nixon’s resignation as President, the program is widely regarded as being a major factor in shifting American public opinion toward appreciating the need to dismantle government largess. The series was shown in England, Japan, Italy, Australia, Germany, Canada, and many other countries, and the book was translated for distribution around the world, selling more than one million copies.


No other issue is more misunderstood today than equality. President Obama has used class warfare over and over the last few months and according to him equality at the finish line is the equality that we should all be talking about. However, socialism has never worked and it has always killed incentive to produce more. Milton Friedman expressed the conversative’s best and I am glad that I had the chance to be studying his work for over 30 years now.

In 1980 when I first sat down and read the book “Free to Choose” I was involved in Ronald Reagan’s campaign for president and excited about the race. Milton Friedman’s books and film series really helped form my conservative views. Take a look at one of my favorite films of his:

Created Equal [1/7]. Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose (1980)

Uploaded by on May 30, 2010

In this program, Milton Friedman visits India, the U.S., and Britain, examining the question of equality. He points out that our society traditionally has embraced two kinds of equality: equality before God and equality of opportunity. The first of these implies that human beings enjoy a certain dignity simply because they are members of the human community. The second suggests societies should allow the talents and inclinations of individuals to unfold, free from arbitrary barriers. Both of these concepts of equality are consistent with the goal of personal freedom.

In recent years, there has been growing support for a third type of equality, which Dr. Friedman calls “equality of outcome.” This concept of equality assumes that justice demands a more equal distribution of the economic fruits of society. While admitting the good intentions of those supporting the idea of equality of outcome, Dr. Friedman points out that government policies undertaken in support of this objective are inconsistent with the ideal of personal freedom. Advocates of equality of outcome typically argue that consumers must be protected by government from the insensitivities of the free market place.

Dr. Friedman demonstrates that in countries where governments have pursued the goal of equality of outcome, the differences in wealth and well being between the top and the bottom are actually much greater than in countries that have relied on free markets to coordinate economic activity. Indeed, says Dr. Friedman, it is the ordinary citizen who benefits most from the free market system. Dr. Friedman concludes that any society that puts equality ahead of freedom will end up with neither. But the society that puts freedom before equality will end up with both greater freedom and great equality.


FREE TO CHOOSE 5: “Created Equal” (Milton Friedman)
Free to Choose ^ | 1980 | Milton Friedman

Posted on Friday, July 21, 2006 3:58:44 PM by Choose Ye This Day

FREE TO CHOOSE: Created Equal

Friedman: From the Victorian novelists to modern reformers, a favorite device to stir our emotions is to contrast extremes of wealth and of poverty. We are expected to conclude that the rich are responsible for the deprivations of the poor __ that they are rich at the expense of the poor.

Whether it is in the slums of New Delhi or in the affluence of Las Vegas, it simply isn’t fair that there should be any losers. Life is unfair __ there is nothing fair about one man being born blind and another man being born with sight. There is nothing fair about one man being born of a wealthy parent and one of an indigenous parent. There is nothing fair about Mohammed Ali having been born with a skill that enables him to make millions of dollars one night. There is nothing fair about Marleena Detrich having great legs that we all want to watch. There is nothing fair about any of that. But on the other hand, don’t you think a lot of people who like to look at Marleena Detrich’s legs benefited from nature’s unfairness in producing a Marleena Detrich. What kind of a world would it be if everybody was an absolute identical duplicate of anybody else. You might as well destroy the whole world and just keep one specimen left for a museum. In the same way, it’s unfair that Muhammed Ali should be a great fighter and should be able to earn millions. But would it not be even more unfair to the people who like to watch him if you said that in the pursuit of some abstract idea of equality we’re not going to let Muhammed Ali get more for one nights fight than the lowest man on the totem pole can get for a days unskilled work on the docks. You can do that but the result of that would be to deny people the opportunity to watch Mohammad Ali. I doubt very much he would be willing to subject himself to the kind of fights he’s gone through if he were to get the pay of an unskilled docker.

This beautiful estate, its manicured lawns, its trees, its shrubs, was built by men and women who were taken by force in Africa and sold as slaves in America. These kitchen gardens were planted and tended by them to furnish food for themselves and their master, Thomas Jefferson, the Squire of Monticello. It was Jefferson who wrote these words: We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. These words penned by Thomas Jefferson at the age of 33 when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, have served to define a basic ideal of the United States throughout its history.

Much of our history has revolved about the definition and redefinition of the concept of equality, about the intent to translate it into practice. What did Thomas Jefferson mean by the words all men are created equal? He surely did not mean that they were equal and/or identical in what they could do and what they believed. After all, he was himself a most remarkable person. At the age of 26, he designed this beautiful house of Monticello, supervised its construction and indeed is said to have worked on it with his own hands. He was an inventor, a scholar, an author, a statesman, governor of Virginia, President of the United States, minister to France, he helped shape and create the United States. What he meant by the word “equal” can be seen in the phrase “endowed by their creator”. To Thomas Jefferson, all men are equal in the eyes of God. They all must be treated as individuals who have each separately a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Of course, practice did not conform to the ideals. In Jefferson’s life or in ours as a nation, he agonized repeatedly during his lifetime about the conflict between the institution of slavery and the fine words of the declaration. Yet, during his whole life, he was a slave owner.

This is the City Palace in Jaipur, the capitol of the Indian state of Rajasthan, is just one of the elegant houses that were built here 150 years ago by the prince who ruled this land. There are no more princes, no more Maharajas in India today. All titles were swept away by the government of India in its quest for equality. But as you can see, there are still some people here who live a very privileged life. The descendants of the Maharajas financed this kind of life partly by using other palaces as hotels for tourists __ tourists who come to India to see how the other half lives. This side of India, the exotic glamorous side, is still very real. Everywhere in the world there are gross inequalities of income and wealth. They offend most of us.

A myth has grown up that free market capitalism increases such inequalities, that the rich benefit at the expense of the poor. Nothing could be further from the truth. Wherever the free market has been permitted to operate, the ordinary man has been able to attain levels of living never dreamed of before. Nowhere is the gap between rich and poor. Nowhere are the rich richer and the poor poorer than in those societies that do not permit the free market to operate, whether they be feudal societies where status determines position, or modern, centrally-planned economies where access to government determines position.

Central planning was introduced in India in considerable part in the name of equality. The tragedy is that after 30 years, it is hard to see any significant improvement in the lot of the ordinary person.


Other segments:

Free to Choose by Milton Friedman: Episode “Created Equal” (Part 7 of transcript and video)

Liberals like President Obama want to shoot for an equality of outcome. That system does not work. In fact, our free society allows for the closest gap between the wealthy and the poor. Unlike other countries where free enterprise and other freedoms are not present.  This is a seven part series. Created Equal [7/7]. Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose […]

Liberals’ solution for the poor is more welfare, but that will not work

Milton Friedman’s solution to limiting poverty Liberals like Michael Cook just don’t get it. They should listen to Milton Friedman (who is quoted in this video below concerning the best way to limit poverty). New Video Shows the War on Poverty Is a Failure Posted by Daniel J. Mitchell The Center for Freedom and Prosperity has […]

Free to Choose by Milton Friedman: Episode “Created Equal” (Part 6 of transcript and video)

Liberals like President Obama want to shoot for an equality of outcome. That system does not work. In fact, our free society allows for the closest gap between the wealthy and the poor. Unlike other countries where free enterprise and other freedoms are not present.  This is a seven part series. Created Equal [6/7]. Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose […]

“Friedman Friday” Free to Choose by Milton Friedman: Episode “Created Equal” (Part 5 of transcript and video)

Liberals like President Obama want to shoot for an equality of outcome. That system does not work. In fact, our free society allows for the closest gap between the wealthy and the poor. Unlike other countries where free enterprise and other freedoms are not present.  This is a seven part series. Created Equal [5/7]. Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose […]

Republican debate Oct 18, 2011 (last part) with video clips and transcript

Republican debate Oct 18, 2011 (last part) with video clips and transcript Below are video clips and the transcript. pt 5 pt 6 pt 7 COOPER: We’re going to move on to an issue very important here in the state of Nevada and throughout the West. We have a question from the hall. QUESTION: Yeah, […]

Milton Friedman discusses Reagan and Reagan discusses Friedman

Uploaded by YAFTV on Aug 19, 2009 Nobel Laureate Dr. Milton Friedman discusses the principles of Ronald Reagan during this talk for students at Young America’s Foundation’s 25th annual National Conservative Student Conference MILTON FRIEDMAN ON RONALD REAGAN In Friday’s WSJ, Milton Friedman reflectedon Ronald Reagan’s legacy. (The link should work for a few more […]

Free to Choose by Milton Friedman: Episode “Created Equal” (Part 4 of transcript and video)

Liberals like President Obama want to shoot for an equality of outcome. That system does not work. In fact, our free society allows for the closest gap between the wealthy and the poor. Unlike other countries where free enterprise and other freedoms are not present.  This is a seven part series. Created Equal [4/7]. Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose […]

Friedman Friday” Free to Choose by Milton Friedman: Episode “Created Equal” (Part 3 of transcript and video)

Friedman Friday” Free to Choose by Milton Friedman: Episode “Created Equal” (Part 3 of transcript and video) Liberals like President Obama want to shoot for an equality of outcome. That system does not work. In fact, our free society allows for the closest gap between the wealthy and the poor. Unlike other countries where free enterprise and other […]

Free to Choose by Milton Friedman: Episode “Created Equal” (Part 2 of transcript and video)

Free to Choose by Milton Friedman: Episode “Created Equal” (Part 2 of transcript and video) Liberals like President Obama want to shoot for an equality of outcome. That system does not work. In fact, our free society allows for the closest gap between the wealthy and the poor. Unlike other countries where free enterprise and other freedoms are […]

Free to Choose by Milton Friedman: Episode “Created Equal” (Part 1 of transcript and video)

 Milton Friedman and Ronald Reagan Liberals like President Obama (and John Brummett) want to shoot for an equality of outcome. That system does not work. In fact, our free society allows for the closest gap between the wealthy and the poor. Unlike other countries where free enterprise and other freedoms are not present.  This is a seven part series. […]

Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: