What Causes Wealth Inequality?

This discussion is adapted from a forum debate.

There are many causes of wealth inequality, but several major factors come to mind:

  • High effective income tax rates and costs of living. When the government takes larger percentages of income, it becomes harder and harder to accumulate wealth, but existing wealth is untouched. Hence, those trying to climb the economic ladder find it much more difficult to get to the top than it is for the wealthy to stay at the top. You’ll notice that most blue states have high taxes and high costs of living due to redistributive welfare policies, regulations, bans, licensing laws, etc.
  • High inflation. Inflation that is driven by the government printing money is effectively a flat-rate tax on income and wealth. This is even more harmful than the income tax for those trying to climb the economic ladder, because those are the people who tend to have their assets purely in the form of cash. The wealthy have enough wealth that they can afford to (knowledgeably) put most of it into stocks, bonds, securities, and business investments. So, they are hardly touched by inflation, while poorer people who have all their cash in the bank will see their effective purchasing power dwindle over the years.
  • Regulation and licensing laws. Regulations make it harder to run a business. They also make the learning curve and required initial investment to start a business MUCH steeper. The people who are already at the top can afford legal experts to parse through all the regulations for them, and can afford to comply with all the licensing laws. But people who are just trying to get started and make something of themselves are hopeless unless they can get free outside assistance to help them navigate the regulatory pitfalls and compliance requirements. Unless you’re very sociable and know the right people, free help is pretty hard to come by. Big businesses actively lobby for strict licensing laws (e.g. medical licensing, food service licensing, distillery licensing, “official” taxi licensing, etc.) because they know it keeps potential small competitors with great ideas out of the game completely. A powerful example of this effect can be seen in the beer market. After prohibition ended, all forms of alcohol production were kept under strict licensing laws, and only 2 or 3 breweries and 1 distillery dominated the entire market for decades. Then, in the 1970’s, brewery licensing laws were repealed (while distillery licensing laws were kept in place) and the craft brewery movement immediately got started. The quality and variety of available beer skyrocket so much that, within a decade, the beer market started to even outcompete the wine market on their own turf (i.e. customers interested in “classy” alcoholic beverages). This is why today, we have tens of thousands of choices in beer whereas in 1970, you had to pick Coors, Miller, or Budweiser. Though, distilleries still suffer under (some of) the old licensing laws, keeping just a few big companies in control of the whole market.
  • Government grants. Government grants sound like a good idea for helping causes you like (e.g. business, science, etc.), but it gives government enormous power to play favorites. The wealthiest districts in the country are those where people are most skilled at winning government grants. If you’re trying to run a business, and you have the best product on the market, but your competitor has a government grant, your competitor will win. And it’s much easier to get a government grant if you’re already wealthy, so the politicians have already heard of you. This process entrenches an economic elite that does little of value, but speaks the language that makes political hearts flutter with excitement. In graduate school PhD programs, they don’t even teach young scientists how to raise private money from willing contributors anymore. They just teach us how to apply for- and win -government grants. Getting government grants is also a lot easier if you live in a state that votes Democrat, simply because Democrats populate most of the government’s executive offices that distribute these grants. Based on what I’ve seen in my own field, you could have a university in Texas that generates more high-quality research than a university in California, both competing for the same grants, and the California university would get >80% of the grant money.

It is a perpetual irony of the political economy that every major problem faced by the lower-class and middle-class is created or worsened by the same people who claim to want to help them. Nobel Laureate Friedrich von Hayek observed this phenomenon in the 1930’s, and published a book in 1944 called The Road to Serfdom, in which he describes how totalitarians successfully subjugate a voting population through a vicious cycle of Observe a Societal Problem -> Implement Government Authority to Fix It -> The Authority Causes More Problems -> Repeat. Voters fall for it every time.

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