Semi-Daily Journal Archive

The Blogspot archive of the weblog of J. Bradford DeLong, Professor of Economics and Chair of the PEIS major at U.C. Berkeley, a Research Associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Treasury.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Pigou Club: Egalitarian Utilitarianism

Mark Thoma attempts to lead Greg Mankiw's Pigou Club off in a different direction:

Economist's View: Pigouvian Redistribution: There has been a lot of support lately for the ideas that Arthur Cecil Pigou (1877-1959) set forth in his book The Economics of Welfare. Pigou held the chair of political economy at Cambridge (succeeding Alfred Marshall) and was the leading neoclassical economist of his day. The book is an attempt to provide a theoretical basis for government intervention to improve social conditions. His introduction of Pigouvian taxes is part of that effort.... [O]ther ideas from his book... [include this] argument for redistributing income from the rich to the poor....

[I]t is evident that any transference of income from a relatively rich man to a relatively poor man of similar temperament, since it enables more intense wants, to be satisfied at the expense of less intense wants, must increase the aggregate sum of satisfaction. The old "law of diminishing utility" thus leads securely to the proposition: Any cause which increases the absolute share of real income in the hands of the poor, provided that it does not lead to a contraction in the size of the national dividend from any point of view, will, in general, increase economic welfare.

This conclusion is further fortified by another consideration. Mill wrote: "Men do not desire to be rich, but to be richer than other men. The avaricious or covetous man would find little or no satisfaction in the possesion of any amount of wealth, if he were the poorest amongst all his neighbours or fellow-countrymen." More elaborately, Signor Rignano writes: "As for the needs which vanity creates, they can be satisfied equally well by a small as by a large expenditure of energy. ... In reality a man's desire to appear 'worth' double what another man is worth, that is to say, to possess goods (jewels, clothes, horses, parks, luxuries, houses, etc.) twice as valuable as those possessed by another man, is satisfied just as fully, if the first has ten things and the second five, as it would be if the first had a hundred and the second fifty."

Now the part played by comparative, as distinguished from absolute, income is likely to be small for incomes that only suffice to provide the necessaries and primary comforts of life, but to be large with large incomes. In other words, a larger proportion of the satisfaction yielded by the incomes of rich people comes from their relative, rather than from their absolute, amount. This part of it will not be destroyed if the incomes of all rich people are diminished together. The loss of economic welfare suffered by the rich when command over resources is transferred from them to the poor will, therefore, be substantially smaller relatively to the gain of economic welfare to the poor than a consideration of the law of diminishing utility taken by itself suggests...

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