What Is Wrong with the West’s Economies?

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Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation/Art Resource © 2015 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Jacob Lawrence: The Builders, 1947

What is wrong with the economies of the West—and with economics? It depends on whether we are talking about the good or the just.

Many of us in Western Europe and America feel that our economies are far from just, though our views on justice differ somewhat. One band of economists, led for decades by the British economist Anthony Atkinson, sees the West as being in another Gilded Age of inequality in income and wealth.1 Adopting Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian view, they would redistribute income from those in high brackets to those farther down—until we reach the highest “sum of utilities.” It is a question, though, whether this doctrine captures intuitive views of what is just.

Philosophers over these same decades have been more interested in the work by the American philosopher John Rawls. His book A Theory of Justice argues for a fundamental shift away from Bentham: economic justice is about the distribution of “utilities,” for him a word usually denoting the satisfactions of consumption and leisure, not the sum of those utilities.2 It is about the terms on which each participant contributes to the fruit of the society’s economy. For Rawls, justice requires the state to use taxes and subsidies to pull up people with the lowest wages to the highest level possible. That way, the least advantaged get the largest possible portion of the gain from people’s cooperation in the economy.

A struggle persists between these views. The Benthamite view has morphed into the corporatist idea that a nation’s government ought to provide benefits, whether in the form of money or tax advantages, or free services, to interest groups—whether corporations, or unions, or consumers—that voice a need until more benefits would be deemed to cost too much. Meeting these claims of many different interests has left little in the public purse for low-wage workers.

The Rawlsian view has found little support among legislators, it is true. In the US, the Earned Income Tax Credit was passed in 1975. But it mainly supplements the income of low-wage mothers of young children. It does nothing for low-end workers as a whole and, to some extent, it actually reduces paychecks for low-paid work of childless women and single men. In Europe, a few countries spend much more than the US on job subsidies but statistical analyses have not found large effects on wages or unemployment.

With little or no effective policy initiative giving a lift to the less advantaged, the jarring market forces of the past four decades—mainly the slowdowns in productivity that have spread over the West and, of course, globalization, which has moved much low-wage manufacturing to Asia—have proceeded, unopposed, to drag down both employment and wage rates…


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