Capitalism, China, Issues, Socialism

A Lesson from China on Poverty Reduction and Inequality

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I’ve written (many, many times) about how the best way to help the poor is to focus on economic growth rather than inequality.

Image Credit: Nevilley CC by SA 3.0

After all, in a genuine market economy (as opposed to socialism, cronyism, or some other form of statism), the poor aren’t poor because some people are rich.

Today, let’s look at a real-world example of why it is a mistake to focus on inequality.

A study by five Chinese scholars looked at income inequality over time in their country. Their research, published in 2010, focused mostly on the methodological challenges of obtaining good long-run data and understanding the impact of urban and rural populations. But one clear conclusion is that inequality has increased in China.

This paper investigates the influences of the income overlap part on the nationwide Gini coefficient. Then we present a new approach to estimating the Chinese Gini ratio from 1978 to 2006, which avoids the shortcomings of current data sources. In line with the results, the authors further probe the trend of Chinese income disparity. …income inequality has been rising in China. …the national Gini ratio of 2006 is 1.52 times more than that of 1978.

Here’s a chart based on their data (combined with post-2006 data from Statista). It looks at historical trends for the Gini coefficient (a value of “1” is absolute inequality, with one person accumulating all the income in a society, whereas a value of “0” is absolute equality, with everyone having the same level of income.

As you can see, there’s been a significant increase in inequality.

My leftist friends are conditioned to think this is a terrible outcome, in large part because they incorrectly think the economy is a fixed pie.

And when you have that distorted view, higher absolute incomes for the rich necessarily imply lower absolute incomes for the poor.

My response (beyond pointing out that the economy is not a fixed pie), is to argue that the goal should be economic growth and poverty reduction. I don’t care if Bill Gates is getting richer at a faster rate than a poor person. I just want a society where everyone has the chance to climb the economic ladder.

And I also point out that it’s hard to design pro-growth policies that won’t produce more income for rich people. Yes, there are some reforms (licensing liberalization, cutting agriculture subsidies, reducing protectionism, shutting the Ex-Im Bank, reforming Social Security, ending bailouts) that will probably be disproportionately beneficial for those with low incomes, but those policies also will produce growth that will help upper-income people.*

But I’m digressing. The main goal of today’s column is to look at the inequality data from above and then add the following data on poverty reduction.

Here’s a chart I shared back in March. As you can see, there’s been a very impressive reduction in the number of people suffering severe deprivation in rural China (where incomes historically have been lowest).

Consider, now, both charts together.

The bottom line is that economic liberalization resulted in much faster growth. And because some people got richer at a faster rate than others got richer, that led to both an increase in inequality and a dramatic reduction in poverty.

Therefore, what happened in China creates a type of Rorschach test for folks on the left.

  • A well-meaning leftist will look at all this data and say, “I wish somehow everyone got richer at the same rate, but market-based reforms in China are wonderful because so many people escaped poverty.”
  • A spiteful leftist will look at all this data and say, “Because upper-income people benefited even more than low-income people, market-based reforms in China were a failure and should be reversed.”

Needless to say, the spiteful leftists are the ones who hate the rich more than they love the poor (here are some wise words from Margaret Thatcher on such people).

*To the extend that some upper-income taxpayers obtain unearned income via government intervention, then they may lose out from economic liberalization. Ethical rich people, however, will earn more income if there are pro-growth reforms.

This is a guest post by Dan Mitchell “a high priest of light tax small state libertarianism”

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