What should a country emphasize more: a more equitable income distribution or macroeconomic growth? Most people tend to assume that the two are opposed to each other. Research however reveals a very different picture. Andrew G. Berg and Jonathan D. Ostry explain why.
In his influential 1975 book Equality and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff, Arthur Okun argued that pursuing equality can reduce efficiency (the total output produced with given resources). The late Yale University and Brookings Institution economist said that not only can more equal distribution of incomes reduce incentives to work and invest, but the efforts to redistribute—through such mechanisms as the tax code and minimum wages—can themselves be costly. Okun likened these mechanisms to a “leaky bucket.” Some of the resources transferred from rich to poor “will simply disappear in transit, so the poor will not receive all the money that is taken from the rich”—the result of administrative costs and disincentives to work for both those who pay taxes and those who receive transfers.
Do societies inevitably face an invidious choice between efficient production and equitable wealth and income distribution? Are social justice and social product at war with one another?
In a word, no.
In recent work, we discovered that when growth is looked at over the long term, the trade-off between efficiency and equality may not exist. In fact equality appears to be an important ingredient in promoting and sustaining growth. The difference between countries that can sustain rapid growth for many years or even decades and the many others that see growth spurts fade quickly may be the level of inequality. Countries may find that improving equality may also improve efficiency, understood as more sustainable long-run growth.