Kling’s 3-axis model and income inequality

I’d like to extend a warm welcome to a new commenter at Our Dinner Table, Adam, who pointed me to this article: Rising Riches: 1 in 5 in US reach affluence.

Arnold Kling’s 3-axis model can help us predict what various folks might believe about income inequality and why they will continue to talk past each other.

Liberals operate on the oppressed-oppressor axis. The rich are the oppressors and the poor are the oppressed. They believe something must be done (government action) to ‘fix’ this situation. This view seems to be expressed in the article.

Conservatives operate on the barbarism-civilization axis. Rich people earn their money based on traditional values of strong work ethic and responsible choices. The poor may be more responsible for their position that liberals believe. So, using government to ‘fix’ income inequality erodes the values of work ethic and responsible choices.

This view is also expressed in the article, but by a successful pharmacist who “grew up on food stamps, but now splurges on…Hugo Boss shoes,” which I took as a subtle attempt to discredit his view.

Libertarians (as if anyone really cares what libertarian think) operate on the freedom-coercion axis. As long as the rich didn’t violate anybody’s freedoms to become rich, then all the power to them. Using force to try to ‘fix’ income inequality violates freedom, so is bad.

I fall into a mix conservative/libertarian camp here. Though, I am sure there are some poor people who are ‘disadvantaged’ and not merely victims of their own bad choices and unwillingness to take advantage of the tremendous opportunity this country has to offer (like a free $100,000 education).

I have a question for people who believe the ‘disadvantaged’ explanation.

Have you considered that encouraging responsible behaviors may be a better way to help the disadvantaged than redistribution?

Don Boudreaux, of Cafe Hayek, has some good thoughts on the article in his post, A Barrier to Reducing Income Inequality??? 

 

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10 thoughts on “Kling’s 3-axis model and income inequality

  1. “Have you considered that encouraging responsible behaviors may be a better way to help the disadvantaged than redistribution?”

    I’ve never bought into the divide. That isn’t to suggest that it doesn’t exist in people – there are certainly liberals, conservatives and libertarians with pure views on how to fix poverty. I just don’t see those pure views as particularly functional. As a teacher I see students who need someone to hold their hand to get them up and moving. I see students who need a kick in the pants to get them moving. I see students that get moving without any hand holding or kicks in the pants.

    Undoubtedly the population of the country are not my students and I am not their teacher but never the less I see a parallel that there is no one solution to the problem of poverty (just is there is no one philosophy that can be applied effectively to all my students in terms of helping them grow). Some people genuinely need a hand out of a deep dark pit. Some people need to be taught the value of hard work and responsibility . Some people will pull themselves out of the mire when people simply stay out of their way.

    So yes. I have considered that encouraging responsible behavior may be a better way to help the disadvantaged than redistribution. It may be for some people some of the time.

    Is that a vague enough answer?

    • Hi Wally —
      “Some people genuinely need a hand out of a deep dark pit. Some people need to be taught the value of hard work and responsibility . Some people will pull themselves out of the mire when people simply stay out of their way.”

      I think all of these can be achieved by encouraging and reinforcing responsible behaviors.

      • Seth –

        “I think all of these can be achieved by encouraging and reinforcing responsible behaviors.”

        I agree. The end goal for me as a teacher is to have a student that is self motivating (AKA responsible) in so far as it is possible for that student. I think the end goal of any social program should be to have a citizen that is self motivating in so far as that is possible for that individual.

        Here’s a pretty good (I think) example from teaching. Suppose I want the kids in my class to work a particular punching combination. There are some students who I can simply hand pads to, partner them up and they are good to go. There are others who I have to carefully partner up or they’ll quickly lose focus. And finally, there are some kids who are completely unable to work with a partner at all. The end goal is to produce a student that I can simply hand pads to and then coach them on technique. The reality is that there are many students who need a fair amount of hand holding and or pants kicking to get there.

        I tend to view the world through the lens of teaching. It’s what I do so it is how I think. My experience in dealing with people who are disadvantaged and or in trouble (I’m thinking specifically of friends who have become alcoholics, drug addicts and or are sliding into poverty) is that sometimes there are folks who simply need coaching (like the children who simply need to be handed the pads), and that there are also some who need hand holding and or kicks in the pants. The goal, as you said, I think should be a self motivated and responsible citizen. (And as Adam points out, there are lots of people who make bad choices who don’t want to or can’t be helped.)

        I feel like I’m maybe just repeating my previous comment but I felt like I didn’t state it clearly. Does this re-statement make more sense?

        • I think I understand. I think it’s good to recognize that there are spontaneous and non-governmental mechanisms that have sprung up to address and help people in the analogous categories in life — in addition to the government efforts that have been put in place.

          Unfortunately, I think there are also enablers (private and government) disguised as help that go over the line by encouraging dependency and helplessness rather than self-motivation and responsibility.

          • Seth –

            “I think I understand. I think it’s good to recognize that there are spontaneous and non-governmental mechanisms that have sprung up to address and help people in the analogous categories in life — in addition to the government efforts that have been put in place.”

            I appreciate your patience. A big kudos to you and all who comment here for allowing everyone to state their case and trying to understand them.

            I wonder if there can’t be some effort to recognize those mechanisms that are helping people (whatever they may be) and expand on them. I know that there is an effort in my state (Oregon) to increase using “Drug Courts” to prosecute drug offenders rather than the standard courts because they seem to produce a better result (reformed abusers) rather than the result that the standard courts produce (repeat offenders).

            “Unfortunately, I think there are also enablers (private and government) disguised as help that go over the line by encouraging dependency and helplessness rather than self-motivation and responsibility.”

            Agreed. And undoubtedly the enablers are profiting from this dependency in some way, or they wouldn’t keep doing it. I think you’ve pointed this out numerous times in the blog – Politicians get votes by promising handouts.

        • “I appreciate your patience. A big kudos to you and all who comment here for allowing everyone to state their case and trying to understand them.”

          Thanks for noticing. I think that is the key to productive exchange and one of the main reasons I started this blog — to try to promote productive exchange. I am human and I have the natural tendencies to want to name call and spout off, but I try to override those because I know from experience that I learn more when I do.

          “I wonder if there can’t be some effort to recognize those mechanisms that are helping people (whatever they may be) and expand on them.”

          Great idea. That would be a good addition as an ongoing thread to the blog. The example you gave is a good one.

          I think Dave Ramsey is a good example of a private, for-profit effort of encouraging responsible behavior targeted at helping those who have made bad financial choices and who need a “kick in the pants” and some education.

          Alcoholics Anonymous is a good example of a private, not-for-profit effort to encourage responsible behavior.

  2. Thank you for the welcome. I’ve been reading your blog for a few months and really enjoy it. Recently, I’ve been working to develop my writing skill and flesh out some of my ideas, which has led me to post.

    I like the idea of Kling’s three axes and can see how being close to one axis makes the other perspectives almost incomprehensible. In my case, I cannot see how one person’s enrichment through an aggregate of voluntary exchanges oppresses another person in any way. The only way oppression comes into it is if one party is forced to engage in an interaction against its will. Enrichment through rent-seeking would be an example of this kind of oppression. As long as alternatives exist and the exchange is voluntary, I can’t see any oppression there. I realize that it can be confusing when we see wildly unequal outcomes, but no person or government can fully control for the thousands of unknown variables that influence outcomes one way or another. The best any society can do is establish principles of justice (oldest wisdom known) and ensure equal access to all citizens.

    On a related note, since I identify strongly with an internal locus of control, it seems to me that nobody can truly be “rescued” by anyone else. They must rescue themselves either by seeking help or by accepting help when offered. For those who choose not to rescue themselves and elevate their own condition — while I may choose otherwise for myself, my personal values dictate that I respect their choice.

    In this context, redistribution seems to be neither help, nor rescue. It’s a palliative at best and a vote-buying bribe at worst.

    • It’s good to have you and well said. I agree. We look forward to reading more from you.

      I could see there being another liberal axis for viewing income inequality (and other issues), as well: the advantaged and disadvantaged.

      I think both of the liberal axes (oppressed/oppressor and disadvantaged/advantaged) are expressed in the article.

      I agree the case for oppression in this case is hard to make. I think folks accept the case for advantaged/disadvantaged without much thought. For them, I might ask what exactly are the disadvantages? Do you know anybody who overcame these disadvantages? How did they do it?

      I think there’s another common argument that is used to support redistribution: marginal utility. It is assumed that a poor person gets more utility from the extra dollar than a rich person.

      • My personal experience leads me to discount appeals to “disadvantage” in the US. The poor in the this country are so unbelievably wealthy, the worst neighborhoods are so amazingly clean, the worst schools provide such high levels of basic education, the opportunity pathways are so numerous, and the barriers to socio-economic advancement are so miniscule compared to other environments I’ve lived in. The second-generation Nigerian-American in the article didn’t let supposed disadvantages hold him back. Somewhat like him, I was disadvantaged in most of the ways frequently cited: poor education, discrimination, malnutrition, disease, extreme poverty. Also somewhat like him, I’ve clawed my way out of poverty to provide a better life for myself and my family.

        It’s funny, when I tell people that I saved up my earnings and eventually started college with three children, worked full time while going to school full time, family living bare bones to make it on my one income, the response I usually get is: “I could never do that.” I interpret this as: “I don’t choose to make those sacrifices.” They are of course welcome to make their own choices, but there is no way that they are then entitled to demand a portion of the rewards I’ve earned through my sacrifice.

        • Again, well said. It amazes me how the benefit of the doubt often goes to the folks who are viewed as ‘disadvantaged’ rather than the folks who worked hard and made responsible choices. We use to not be so gullible.

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