A Taxonomy of Excuses for Poverty and Inequality (The Inequality List, Part 1)

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

In my Verdict column yesterday, and my accompanying Dorf on Law post, I confronted one of the more persistent conservative arguments regarding poverty and inequality.  Sure, they will say, poverty and inequality might be bad if they persisted for a long time, but there is so much economic mobility in the U.S. that we need only wait some acceptably short amount of time (with the maximum acceptable time period never specified, of course), and the poor will no longer be poor.  The former poor will be replaced by newly poor, but those people also will not be at the bottom for long.

This argument is surely a chestnut, but it has always been a bad joke.  "Thinkers" like Paul Ryan (ironic quotes very much appropriate here) acknowledge that there is persistent poverty, but they argue that it is all the government's fault.  If only we had not tried to fight a War on Poverty, they say, then we would not have created a nation of people who are the Democrats' political dependents!  Who cares that the evidence and scholarship that Ryan directly cites fails to support his case, or that the consensus among scholars is in substantial disagreement with his conclusions?

The mobility argument became even more ridiculous when we learned that there is now more economic mobility in the countries of Old Europe than in the Horatio Alger-esque New World, but it was always ridiculous.  Yet the argument endures, because it allows opponents of redistributive policies to wrap themselves in warm words like "opportunity" and "ambition."  Don't worry, be optimistic!

Leading into the discussion of mobility in my Verdict column, I noted that in 2009 I had written down a list of arguments that conservatives have offered against doing anything about poverty and inequality.  Those arguments could be arranged into three broad categories, in the form of arguments in the alternative: (1) “There is no problem,” (2) “Even if there is a problem, there is nothing we can do about it, and (3) “Even if we could do something about it, whatever we might do would only make matters worse in some much more important way.”

I noted that there were similar progressions of arguments under each of those categories.  It was unnecessary there to provide the whole list, but I will do so here.  Note that most of these arguments can be adapted from their current form -- "Reasons not to do anything about poverty" -- to their alternative form -- "Reasons not to do anything about inequality" -- only by changing one word of the argument.  Some, however, do not quite work when applied to inequality; but those isolated instances are not important here.  In any event, here is the current version of the list:

(1)       There is no problem

  • Poverty does not exist.
  • Even if poverty does exist, the poor deserve to be poor.
  • Even if the poor do not deserve to be poor, the market will eliminate poverty.
  • Even if the market fails to eliminate poverty, no one stays poor for very long.
  • Even if some people do stay poor for a long time, their poverty is only relative, not absolute.
  • Even if poverty is absolute, it is not harmful.

(2) Even if there is a problem, there is nothing we can do about it

  • Even if poverty is harmful, it is because people are predisposed to poverty.
  • Even if people are not predisposed to poverty, they are not equipped to handle opportunities after having been in poverty.
  • Even if people could handle opportunities, they would not take full advantage of what they are given, because one cannot appreciate what is not earned.
  • Even if people could appreciate opportunities that were not earned, the government in inherently unable to give them the opportunities that would allow them to be succeed.

(3) Even if we could do something about it, whatever we might do would only make matters worse in some much more important way

  • Even if poverty can be reduced by government action, it is too expensive to do so.
  • Even if it is not too expensive to reduce poverty, doing so would reward laziness.
  • Even if government action against poverty does not reward laziness, the government programs will be riddled with corruption.
  • Even if redistributive programs are not corrupted, they will reduce GDP (or GDP growth)
  • Even if redistributive programs do not reduce GDP or growth, they penalize virtue.

I emphasize that this was simply a list that I put together prior to a speaking engagement, which I hoped to use to illustrate the whac-a-mole nature of arguing about issues of economic distribution.  It is certainly not a complete list, especially under category (3), where an awful lot of work is being done by the second-to-last category (where "efficiency" arguments generally sit).

Despite its incompleteness, I do think that there is something to be gained by noting the progression of "even if" arguments.  It is never enough to win an argument, because there is always another one coming.  And there is every opportunity for a committed anti-redistributionist to loop back around to any point higher on the list, simply to muddy the waters.  One can, for example, flip back and forth between "there is no problem" and "the government makes the problem worse," as I discussed above re Ryan, apparently without embarrassment about the inconsistency.

Because this list is almost certainly incomplete, I encourage readers to offer suggested additions to this taxonomy.  Or, one might reasonably argue that this is the wrong way to view the game that is being played, and that I give too much ground by imagining that there is any logical structure to these arguments at all.  It might be better, for example, to view conservatives' arguments as a grab-bag of thoughts that can come out at any time and in any order.  I do think that there is something to be gained by seeing the arguments as successive attempts to change the subject, but I could be wrong.

In any event, it now appears that the inequality/poverty debate is going to be with us for some time.  This seems like an opportune moment to anticipate the fog of evasions and disinformation to come.  Constructive suggestions welcome.