Skip to content
Subscriber Only
Noah Smith

The Morality of Taking From the Rich and Giving to the Poor

The question of how much to redistribute is tangled up with what determines individual economic success.

A matter of perspective.

A matter of perspective.

Photographer: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

Because so many people’s lives and livelihoods depend on economic policy, there’s a strong tendency to politicize the discipline of economics. In order to resist this tendency and retain their academic credibility, economists generally try to stick to the facts. Instead of telling society what it ought to do, they strive to offer a menu of choices and trade-offs. Economists do occasionally try to quantify how much policies improve welfare, but this analysis tends to be stilted, one-dimensional and based on mathematical assumptions.

In an era of fast economic growth, economists could usually get away with this neutral approach; as President John F. Kennedy liked to say, a rising tide lifts all boats. But growth in developed nations is tapering off, thanks to aging populations, plateauing education levels and a global productivity slowdown. That means that economists are not going to be able to dodge the hard questions of redistribution for much longer.