The income inequality obsession

There is undoubtedly a persisting obsession with income inequality, whether this comes from the likes of Thomas Piketty or Russell Brand (whom Kate Andrews very recently wrote an article on), this obsession is unhealthy and, actually, upon closer scrutiny, counter-productive.

The focus on income inequality places emphasis on income being the most important component of inequality. Income, however, is only useful as a means to an end, rather than as an end in itself.  It is a way of measuring and attaining a form of freedom in modern society. It derives its value from affording the individual who possesses it with capabilities. Ludwig von Mises wrote in a Theory of Money and Credit that money is money by virtue of the fact that it is a medium of exchange (rather than it being legal tender or a store of value, for example).

The obsession with relative income rather than focusing on advancing one’s own, absolute capabilities (and/or others’, for that matter) helps perpetuate the frictions of class differences (the income component of them, at least). Income, whether absolute or relative, is not an end-in-itself for the vast majority of people.

Delving more deeply into the real value of money, we find that freedom and the inequality of freedoms enjoyed by people is at the real heart of the problem. Those who obsess over income inequality shy away from addressing the legally imposed inequality of freedom; the right to use one’s labouring capacity as one sees fit, to spend one’s time as and when they want and for the price they will, the right to interact with our fellows to our mutual advantage without third-party interference, the right to speak freely, think freely and live freely – don’t these legal iniquities require more urgent addressing?

The focus on income inequality is the smoke and mirrors of well-intentioned rhetoric. The focus on wealth redistribution rather than the opportunity to engage freely in wealth creation, on compulsory, ever-more rigid education instead of free thought, on dividing society according to income instead of encouraging social cohesion… this focus provides supposed justification for the legal privileging and normative elevation of income pursuit and, therefore, enables subtle homogenisation and, ultimately, degradation of peoples’ capacity for free thought. Addressing income inequality through redistributive policies is, as is all too often the case with such proposals, conservatism in the guise of social liberalism.

Subsidising green tech could be self-defeating

One of the only arguably beneficial impacts of taxing petrol as heavily as the government does is, theoretically, to encourage the production of ‘fuel-efficient’ vehicles. A tax on fuel increases its price and consumers will seek fuel-efficient alternatives to current vehicles. This increased demand has encouraged car manufacturers to develop vehicles that are more fuel-efficient. Since subsidies are the inverse of taxation, the effect of subsidising green technology on innovation is inverted.

Subsidising green technology means that producers have less incentive to continue innovating and producing even more efficient technology since the government basically favours the status quo or a particular benchmark. If we must have subsidies, this benchmark (as in, a certain level of efficiency) must be constantly revised upwards so that: 1. We don’t subsidise as many firms’ products, 2. Cash transfers to firms require constant innovation and improvement. Cutting back subsidies for fuel-efficiency and green technology in conjunction with these high fuel taxes (let’s face it, they’re not coming down anytime soon) should encourage innovation whilst tackling the budget deficit.

A similar logic applies to subsidising solar panels, wind farms etc. because the government has essentially signalled to the producers that, although their inventions are not cost-effective, the remaining burden will be imposed upon the taxpayer. This means that these alternative energy sources will not be developed to their full potential as quickly as they would otherwise be.
Why delay innovation on the basis that we are happy with what we have compared to what we used to have? Surely, we should encourage the production of new, more efficient ‘green’ energy technologies sooner rather than later; this can be achieved by cutting subsidies for existing green technologies and thereby preventing such firms from being comfortable with inefficiency.

Minimum wages encourage hostility towards migrants

Having a minimum wage is what makes ‘illegal immigration’ feasible. Most illegal immigrants are unskilled, poorly paid workers; Epstein & Hezler (2013) say that “Minimum wages play an essential role since they put a limit on local workers’ and legal migrants’ wages. Thus, under certain circumstances, the probability of employing illegal workers is increased.” Incidentally, the authors also suggested that one way to reduce illegal immigration would be to increase legal immigration (assuming a constant minimum wage). According to a survey commissioned by the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, “Among respondents who want immigration reduced overall, 54% said that they would like reductions either “only” (28%) or “mostly” (26%) among illegal immigrants”.

Illegal immigrants fill a gap for employers who cannot survive by hiring people at or above the minimum wage and who also cannot attract legal residents that are willing to break the law and work for less than minimum wage. Firstly, if there were no minimum wage, then employers would have less incentive to employ illegal immigrants and would, instead, turn to legal residents to offer their labour for these rates. This would simultaneously empower the unemployed with more opportunities to offer their labour, make entrepreneurship increasingly feasible (especially that of the labour-intensive variety) and significantly reduce illegal immigration.

Whether the contempt toward illegal immigrants is from allegations of criminal activity, taking jobs, etc., this has a spill over effect on the perceptions of immigrants in general. There is an oft-documented tendency for people to stereotype and make sweeping generalisations (even if we are subsequently ashamed of doing so). Hence, any negative perceptions of illegal immigrants contribute to the general degradation of legal immigrants’ status in society.

Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly (depending on who you are), via a combination of both the inflexibility of the labour markets that it contributes toward (and, therefore, of price levels in various other markets) and the controversial illegal immigration that it makes feasible, the minimum wage is one of the greatest barriers to the possibility of free immigration and, therefore, of a world where greater understanding and co-operation between people flourishes.

Mazzucato versus Worstall and Westlake

Marianna Mazzucato’s 2013 The Entrepreneurial State is the most influential book on innovation. Although Mazzucato’s arguments in the book and beyond are many and varied – for example, I’m particularly sympathetic to her scepticism of the uncritical financial support for small businesses – the arguments gaining the most traction are the least convincing and potentially most damaging.

In short, Mazzucato’s thesis is that the state has been the key driver of “innovation” and should therefore take a more active role than they currently do. Central to this, is the policy suggestion that government agencies that fund this innovation should take a cut of the profits from the inventions. Two writers have convincingly unpicked this – the Adam Smith Institute’s Tim Worstall and Nesta’s Stian Westlake.

First, on the point about states driving innovation, Worstall cites William Baumol, who makes the crucial distinction between innovation and inventions. In reference to Mazzucato’s observation that the key technologies that went into making the iPhone were state funded Worstall explains: “Baumol’s point is that the private sector could have come up with these technologies, even though it was the state that did. But only the private, or market, sector could have come up with the iPhone.”

To put it another way, the iPhone is more than the sum of its parts. In an excellent article (worth reading in full), Westlake cites the work of Jonathan Haskel, which “suggests that for every £1 that British businesses spend on R&D, they spend £8 on other intangible investments of the sort that Apple used to make the iPod a success: design, new business models, marketing and software development.”

But perhaps Mazzucato’s biggest mistake is one of policy. As Westlake explains elsewhere, in The Entrepreneurial State Mazzucato suggests that “the state should find ways to share directly in the profits of companies that benefit from government innovation spending. A repayment system needs to ‘reward [the government for] the wins when they happen so that the returns can cover the losses from the inevitable failures.’”

Westlake outline three convincing reasons why this wouldn’t work: “it would be nightmarish to administer; it imposes costs on exactly the wrong businesses, creating both a presentational and a practical problem; and it’s worse than an already existing option – funding innovation from general taxation.” Westlake’s last point cuts to heart of the problem. As Worstall has pointed out in a response to Mazzucato’s response to his criticism of her work:

That governments sometimes produce public goods should not be a surprise. That’s what governments are for in fact. To provide collectively those things that cannot be provided through voluntary cooperation. To then complain that government doesn’t get extra rewards for doing the very thing we institute it for seems most odd. That’s why we pay our taxes in the first place: in order to get those public goods. Why should there then be some extra appropriation when all government is doing is what we asked it to and paid for it to do in the first place?

Philip Salter is director of The Entrepreneurs Network.

Five myths about ISIS

For my money, the very best foreign policy blogger on the internet is anonmugwump. One thing he is particularly good at is skewering popular myths. His latest post is one of the best I’ve read on his blog—an extremely well-sourced and detailed look at five popular myths about ISIS. He shows, in detail, that:

  1. Military intervention probably won’t make things worse
  2. The issue isn’t predominantly political
  3. ISIS is likely a threat to the West
  4. Intervening isn’t a trap
  5. Cutting off ISIS’s funding from gulf states isn’t the best way to deal with it.

To some extent, the following myths are all interlinked. The typical anti-war activist believes that the current crisis is mainly political and financial and so military means are not addressing the primary cause of the rise of ISIS. The idea that we’re going to make it worse through military intervention isn’t just because its failing to address the key causes but because it reinforces what went wrong: Maliki alienated Sunnis and bombs will alienate Sunnis. And somewhat linked but not entirely, they think because ISIS is a response to local conditions, ISIS is not concerned with attacking the West. This post is addressed to these people – their premises are false and so their conclusions and prescriptions are also flawed.

Read the whole thing, as they say.