Is inequality of wealth and life prospects an intrinsically evil condition that governments should always attempt to eradicate, or are inequalities and poverty merely the unfortunate results of competition and natural differences (in skill for example) that social institutions cannot be concerned to correct?
With income inequality in the United States attracting so much attention these days, more people are questioning the role of government in ensuring a more equitable distribution of wealth. An economic debate that goes back hundreds of years, discussions about income inequality invariably entail protracted contemplations about the pros and cons of capitalism, the viability of socialism and communism, and the proper role of government in enforcing economic dictates. Whether one views income inequality as inevitable or whether one views the proper role of government in preventing inequality through taxation policies is entirely a product of one’s personal philosophical and political inclinations.
With the evolution of civilization and the introduction of industrialization, the propensity for income inequality grew enormously. Ancient tribal customs that placed a premium on equality among members gave way to more hierarchical structures in which those at the top of the pyramid enjoyed greater material comfort than those at the bottom. Whether actual, total equality ever existed is highly debatable, but there is no question that societies have a natural tendency to develop class structures, whether because of superior business acumen or because one is a member in good standing in the dominant political organization and enjoys the privileges membership entails. Theoretical discourses regarding Marxist utopias have failed to resolve the debate because Karl Marx’s writings ranged from thoughtful visions of economic evolution to strident revolutionary rhetoric that was subsequently perverted by autocratic personalities like Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin. In any event, that represents the extreme, and can be put aside.
Income inequality is a natural outgrowth of capitalism. That is a fact. Capitalism favors the innovative, the ambitious, and the capable. Those who are successful at business make money and rise to the top of the socioeconomic ladder. Those who lack the requisite skills or opportunities languish at the lower rungs of that ladder. The question, then, becomes one of wealth redistribution, primarily through taxation. There is an interesting passage in Rolling Stone guitarist Keith Richards’ memoir in which he explains the group’s decision to leave England for France:
“The tax rate in the early ‘70s on the highest earners was 83 percent, and that went up to 98 percent for investments and so-called unearned income. So that’s the same as being told to leave the country.”
While nobody will confuse Richards with John Kenneth Galbraith, he is an intelligent and successful individual whose decision was a natural response to the levels of income redistribution required to address inequality. Richards' story is instructive, as the same phenomenon exists in the U.S. Finding the proper balance between progressive taxation rates that provide greater equality without eliminating the incentive to earn through the kind of success that generates revenue and provides jobs is extremely difficult. Most Americans agree that the government has a legitimate role to play in preventing excessive income inequality, but, as the old saying goes, the devil is in the details. At a certain point, higher tax rates will do two things: cause money to leave the country, and penalize success.
This question lends more opinions than answers, and it is a difficult topic.
There will never be no poverty; someone will always be richer than someone else. Even in communist countries whose social structures are set up to promote evenness have elite leaders. The definition of poverty changes slightly all the time with changes in things such as standard of living and cost of living, but the term will always exist to describe those who have less than others.
That being said I personally do not believe that it will ever be something we, as a society, can ignore. Just as povery will persist so will altruism. It is human nature to want to help others, and from both a scientific and economic stand point it makes sense to do so. Helping those in need helps the economy and furthers the human race.
So, while poverty may always exist in some form, so will helpfulness.