Income Inequality should not “Occupy” our Public Policy Planning

Republished as an OpEd in Providence Business News (January 2, 2012 edition) under the title “Public policy shouldn’t worry about ‘solving’ inequality.”


As we observe the “Occupy” phenomenon, and as our local chapter prepares to hibernate for the winter, the issue of income inequality has become a national debate. Even as our President talks about fairness we need only look to the very recent past to understand what government should not do in reaction.

Other than alienating some progressive notion of fairness, I have not heard a cogent argument as to how the condition of income inequality negatively affects our economy. Yet many believe that, by addressing the symptom, we will solve the underlying economic malady. This thinking is naively upside down. Free-market theory would instead suggest that income inequality is the result of economic bust periods and not the cause of downturns, which are an expected part of the normal boom-bust cycle.

During difficult economic times the rich will disproportionately be able to protect their wealth because they have the means and because they steer the wheels of industry. To keep profits high they can down-size, reduce wages, and eliminate capital purchases or investments in new technologies. As uncomfortable as this might be to some, this is just “business” … a natural reaction; not evil. Profits are why they risked their wealth in the first place.

Conversely, during boom times, as competition for labor intensifies, the wealthy, via their companies, will offer higher wages and equity positions to more people and will also invest in growth via myriad other purchases. During these periods the lower and middle classes will gain more proportionately from the fruits of industry.

If not income inequality, what then was the cause of the recent recession? While the Occupiers claim that it was the failure of capitalism, I would contend that the real problem was the monkey-wrench of big-government within the gears of capitalism, motivated by the false notion that the government should legislate fair outcomes.

Think about it … what were the three major industries that failed? Housing, Banking/Finance, and Auto: three of the most heavily regulated industries in America. These industries have become anything but true examples of capitalism or free markets.

As for the “1%”, or millionaires, a recent CATO survey found that 80% of them are first-generation rich, meaning they earned their wealth on their own and didn’t have it handed down from their families. Today, that same 1% pays about 37% of all federal income taxes, while earning just 16% of all income. Isn’t this inequality?

Interestingly, it may not even be true that there are more rich people. The non-partisan Tax Foundation found that since 2007, there has been a 39 percent decline in the number of millionaires, and that the top 1% earned 20% of all income just a few years ago.

But, either way, so what? If we are to prosper as a nation, there necessarily must be prosperous people … get over it! Who else is going to invest capital in new growth ventures, in expanding businesses, in hiring people, and in spurring innovation?

Our nation was originally formed with the principle that citizens are equal in the eyes of the law; later we justly added equality with regard to freedom and voting; inalienable rights. Absolutely nothing in our constitution about equal outcomes.

In the 1990s, concerns were raised about inequalities in the housing market. So, for politically created ‘fairness’ reasons, the government intervened, requiring mortgages be granted to individuals who had not yet earned the privilege of being able to pay for a house. The resulting housing bubble and the current wreckage in the housing market is a predictable outcome of government interference in the free-market system.

This self-induced housing wound bled into the financial markets in the form of mortgage derivatives, a futile and destructive attempt to make profits from the non-profitable mortgage practices the government mandated upon the market. Making matters even worse, because of their connections to government, the banks and financial institutions knew that they would be bailed out by the taxpayers; so they took even more reckless risks. This is a point the Occupiers also make, if not for different reasons.

Taxpayer funded bailouts are yet another form of government interference and are not part of the capitalist system. The ‘risk-reward’ and the ‘never too big to fail’ principles were violated … and we are paying for it today.

This unintended chain-reaction of harmful events in the housing market was caused by well-intended, yet imprudent, government intervention in the name of fairness.

The Occupiers now seem to suggest that public policy should be crafted to mete out incomes. If interference in the housing market was bad for America, imagine what the unintended consequences will be to the business sector if government intervenes with the basic incentives of our nation’s entire economic system!

Capitalism is not a dirty word. In fact, we need more of it … via less government intervention. This is what will naturally reduce income inequalities and lead to growth in our economy. Attempting to solve income inequality through government intervention should not occupy any measure of our public policy planning.

Mike Stenhouse is CEO of the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity, a public policy think tank, and earned an Economics Degree from Harvard University.


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