Should Economists Talk About Redistribution?

A distinguished economist was disqualified for an Obama administration appointment because she had talked about the need for redistribution policies. Rebecca Blank, a highly regarded researcher on poverty and inequality, had been considered to chair the President’s Council of Economic Advisors. According to a New York Times story, the key statement that sunk her chances was made in 1992:

“A commitment to economic justice necessarily implies a commitment to the redistribution of economic resources, so that the poor and the dispossessed are more fully included in the economic system.”

Of course, the Obama administration is not opposed to redistribution, but the word was considered politically risky.

ValuesShould economists talk about redistribution of wealth or income? Apparently not, if they want presidential appointments. But let’s talk more broadly: should economists opine on such an issue?

Economic policy cannot derive strictly from economics. Economics is a set of if-then statements: if this occurs, then that happens. It’s a collection of statements about the way the world works, or at least a world of people. There is nothing within the body of economic thought that, by itself, dictates what policy is best.

To determine economic policy, or any other policy, one must start with values. What is important? Rebecca Blank obviously thinks that some level of equality is so important that it merits the use of force to seize wealth from some people. Others, such as libertarians, would say that violence against honest people is not justified even to promote equality. Both positions are philosophical, not economic.

This point is reinforced by the context of Blank’s statement, which appeared in an article entitled “Do Justice: Linking Christian Faith and Modern Economic Life.” Her support for forced redistribution lies in the context of a Christian trying to determine what economics says about how best to pursue one’s religious values. Economics certainly cannot determine what religious values a person should hold. It cannot prove Christ’s role in our lives, nor God’s plan for us. Thus, economics by itself cannot lay out a plan for Christians.

An economist has as much right to express statements about value as anyone else does. However, the economist is not doing so from a position of professional expertise. Blank being an expert on poverty does not mean that she is an expert on the morality of using force to solve social problems. In fact, I doubt that we should grant anyone “expert” status on such philosophical positions.

Incidentally, Blank is to be congratulated for brining economics to bear on questions of implementing Christian values. All too often someone expresses values without an understanding of how the world works. Just as economic policy conclusions must have a foundation in values, they must also incorporate an understanding of how the real world works. Many programs that are proposed in flowery language purporting to help the poor (or stop drug use or bring peace to the Middle East) have the opposite effect. It’s not enough to want the right thing; one also has to make sure that the particular proposal will bring it about.

As a student, I thought that economics had the answer to all policy questions. I learned that I was wrong, in the usual conceit of one who has mastered a single topic and wants to apply it everywhere. I now believe that economics is a secondary consideration, though a necessary consideration. The most important foundation of any policy are philosophical: what are the most important values?