Is inequality of wealth beneficial or detrimental to society?
By: George Noga – May 1, 2016
A persistent meme in America during this political season is inequality. We hear it from presidential candidates and Occupy Wall Street; it has been a liberal shibboleth for well over a decade. But what is inequality; is it good or bad; how is it measured; how much is too much; how much is too little; what is the reality versus the rhetoric?
How much inequality exists in wealth, income, taxation and spending; is it increasing or decreasing? Does increasing the minimum wage alleviate inequality? Which government policies create or exacerbate inequality? How does inequality in America compare to Europe? What, if anything, should we do to increase or reduce inequality? We analyze these questions and more with facts and logic in this five-part series.
Let’s begin with wealth. Socialists and Utopians want no inequality whatsoever but that has proven disastrous throughout human history. Nor is the paradigm of a few oligarchs or caudillos with great wealth amidst grinding poverty for the masses a desired model. In the real world, there is no Goldilocks point where inequality is just right. So, what, if anything, can we discern about inequality of wealth in America?
An economic analysis of wealth in a market economy provides some lessons. It is a cardinal economic principle, and one recognized even in the former USSR, that the amount of newly created wealth is a good measure of how well an economy (or society) is serving the needs of all its people. In a capitalist economy, wealth is created by providing a product or service consumers voluntarily buy. Thus, a society minting many new millionaires is a boon to everyone – rich and poor alike – as it proves that the economy is innovating, becoming more efficient and serving people’s needs.
Dynastic wealth often is viewed differently. Many who accept the nouveau riche rail against old money that was inherited rather than earned. Consider though, that one motivation of the person who created the wealth was to provide for his family and progeny, a universal human sentiment. If wealth was confiscated after the death of the creator, this surely would diminish the incentive to create the wealth in the first place.
History informs that most dynastic wealth is dissipated within three generations by spreading it over more heirs and by poor stewardship. Furthermore, federal and state estate taxes take a 40% to 50% bite each generation. An additional large tranche of generational wealth is bequeathed for charitable purposes. Foundations (Ford, Hughes, Getty, Rockefeller, Gates, Templeton, et al.) have long played a key role in health, education, the arts, science and improving life for all Americans.
The dynastic wealth remaining in tact after three generations is truly minuscule due to (1) spreading it over an ever-expanding pool of future beneficiaries; (2) prodigal spending and poor investment decisions by heirs; (3) estate taxes every generation; and (4) charitable giving. Moreover, it continues to provide investment capital, benefiting the entire economy. Arguably, the acceptance of a modest amount of residual dynastic wealth is a small price to pay for the societal benefits of the original wealth creation.
A logical deduction is that inequality in wealth is not only acceptable but desirable. People like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs accrued great wealth because their efforts benefited hundreds of millions, or even billions, of people. Newly created wealth often is in proportion to the number of people benefited. Therefore, we can further deduce that even billionaires accruing great wealth (the top tenth of one percent), and the vastly increased inequality that results therefrom, is beneficial to everyone in society.
Part II – Inequality of income, taxation and spending will be distributed May 8th.