There’s a lot of information in this video, broken down into five thematic points.
- Profit (earned through voluntary exchange) is good, while plunder (obtained through government coercion) is bad.
- Because people are different, it is important to distinguish between equality of opportunity and equality of outcomes.
- People don’t understand inequality, and that leads many of them to overlook the important problem of poverty.
- We are getting richer over time, meaning that the middle class is only disappearing because some are becoming rich.
- Thanks to the spread of pro-market policies, the entire world is becoming more prosperous with better life outcomes.
For today’s column, let’s focus on item #3 and I want to specifically take this opportunity to explain why we should be aware of how a type of data known as the “Gini coefficient” is used (and sometimes misused).
By way of background, the Gini coefficient measures the distribution of income in a society. As seen in this illustration from Wikipedia, a high coefficient means some people have a lot more income than others and a low coefficient means most people have similar levels of income.
I’ve never been a big fan of the Gini coefficient for three reasons.
First, it’s often used by folks on the left who want higher taxes and more redistribution. Though that’s actually an indictment of how the coefficient is misused.
Second, it doesn’t tell us whether inequality is the result of something good (some people getting rich by providing especially valuable goods and services) or the result of something bad (some people grabbing undeserved loot thanks because of bailouts, subsidies, protectionism, industrial policy, and cronyism).
Third, it does not tell us whether a society is poor or prosperous.
Regarding that final point, Professor Davies pointed out in the video that the most equal nations in the world are Sweden and Afghanistan.
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But having similar Gini coefficients is utterly meaningless because it turns out that the similar scores are for radically different reasons – i.e., people in Afghanistan are equally impoverished and people in Sweden are equally prosperous.
And I can’t resist pointing out that Sweden’s superior results are surely correlated with the fact that Swedes enjoy far higher levels of economic liberty (Sweden is #22 and Afghanistan is #136 according to the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom).
You could also do a comparison between nations with very different Gini coefficients.
The United States, for instance, is much more “unequal” than Afghanistan. But I can’t imagine anyone in America wanting to trade places. After all, almost everyone in the U.S. is far richer than almost everyone in Afghanistan.
Or, if you prefer comparing developed nations, I’ve previously noted that poor people in the United States have the same amount of income as middle-class people in nations with lower levels of inequality.
I’ll close with one final bit of data that shows why Gini coefficients should be viewed with caution. Here’s another visual from the Wikipedia page, this one showing how world inequality increased substantially between 1820 and 2002.
Was that increase in inequality a bad outcome?
Of course not. It was simply a result of the Western world becoming rich because of limited government and the rule of law.
And now that developing nations are finally shifting to market-oriented policies, their incomes also are increasing (which, as a side effect, means global inequality is decreasing).
In other words, we should pay attention to the recipe for growth and prosperity, not the Gini coefficient.
P.S. While I’m not a fan of the Gini coefficient, the so-called trade deficit will always be my least favorite statistic.