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Monday, October 25, 2004

Has Comrade Yglesias committed a thought crime ?

He writes "at the risk of getting my liberal card taken away, I don't think inequality is a serious problem. Deprivation in the face of alternate policies that could promote well-being for the worst off without serious reducing the living standards of others is intolerable, but inequality per se is not." He goes on to say that unequal provision of public services is unacceptable.

The PC police are confused. A key problem is the quickly typed word "serious[ly]". Does this mean "significant" which would imply that Yglesias considers deprivation acceptable unless it could be eliminated with insignificant costs for others ? If so Matt Yglesias is not a liberal. Or does it mean "even more painful" in which case Yglesias is a utilitarian and yes Virginia utilitarians can be liberals. Or finally does "serious[ly] reducing" mean driving others into poverty. In that case, Yglesias doesn't disagree with Rawls after all.

I will assume that "serious" is very serious, so Yglesias is arguing that poverty in America is morally unnacceptable.

According to this interpretation, Yglesias thinks that, provided no one was deprived, the distribution of income would matter little. To be even more specific and less controversial, he might have meant something like this " if everyone had the equivalent of an income of say $100,000 for a family of 4, then it really wouldn't matter how income above that level were distributed, since that would only affect the distribution of un-necessary luxuries."
I don't know if that is what he meant, but, in my view, above that level, neither the distribution of income nor the average income matter much.

However, if, instead of $ 100,000 for a family of 4 he is thinking of the poverty line (in 2003 $18,810 for a family of four) then I absolutely disagree. People with income over the poverty line may still sufffer immensly from lack of privately purchased goods . My guess is that people with income twice the poverty line would still suffer from what Yglesias and I consider to be destitution.

The idea that inequality per se is not a problem so long as destitution is eliminated, seems to suffer very much from consideration about how low a standard of living was considered minimally adequate in the past. If the poverty line had been set in 1800, veryfew people would fall below it, but no one would be better off.

Now I have objected to the whole line of reasoning arguing that there is evidence that relative poverty causes absolute suffering for the innocent (
Waldmann (1992) Quarterly Journal of Economics vol. 107 pp 1283-1302) but it is certainly consistent with being a liberal in good standing.

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