Redistribution, Fairness, and Stability

Here’s my commentary on this morning’s Marketplace


It’s really terribly hard saying anything in 300 words. If I’d had more space I would draw out how there is no way to succeed in promoting a unifying “we’re all in it together” mood when massive government intervention has massive redistributive consequences that track basically NO ONE’s sense of fairness or desert. That’s sure to be divisive. When Obama said in the campaign he meant to “spread the wealth around,” I’m sure most people took that to mean downward redistribution meant to rectify either the unfairness of rising inequality, the unfairness of the fact that some people are struggling for no fault of their own, or both. But bailouts of all sorts–to banks, to car companies, to underwater homeowners–spreads the wealth around in an entirely different way. “Investment” in the “green economy” spreads the wealth around. Increasing the size of the military spreads the wealth around. And so on. None of this accords with any coherent notion of fairness. And the scale of Obama’s initiatives do badly unsettle the structure around which people build expectations, and that’s an independent source of unfairness. We desperately need better framework rules for both private and public finance. It would be silly to oppose serious structural reform. But what we’re getting is the kind of half-panicked, half-opportunistic myopic intervention that breeds future half-panicked, half-opportunistic intervention. That is the opposite of what we need.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center