One of the most successful memes of the right in the last decade or so is that redistribution is the politics of envy. Of course politicians have to appeal to the emotions, and they have to appeal to all denominators including the lowest common ones. Well they don’t have to and there are limits, but if you’re in favour of progressive taxation it’s asking too much of a democratic politician to expect them not to point out to those at the bottom of the pile that those further up are doing better than them.
But it seems that so high minded am I that I never thought of this as the politics of envy. I thought of it as part of a long and distinguished sensibility of modern reform which, as it turns out is supported with remarkable uniformity by the great economists, from Smith through Mill, Marshall, Pigou and Keynes. That world is disdainful of the value of the “baubles” of power and wealth. Smith was particularly vigorous on the subject, indeed, making irrational hankering of the rich and powerful for baubles one of the major engines of the decentralisation of economic and political power in Europe.
But for all of them, the utility benefits of income encountered strongly diminishing returns once a degree of comfort had set in. As Marshall and Pigou were at pains to point out a dollar to a poor person meets more urgent needs than a dollar to a wealthy one, or to put it another way (which Marshall and Pigou did), other things being equal, dollars going to the poor are a more efficient use of dollars – in achieving the ultimate output (which got called ‘utility’) than dollars going to the wealthy. (Oh, and of course they would have understood the point that other things are not equal, and that paying money to poor people can have incentive effects, so then one would pursue some joint optimisation problem of optimising utility subject to undesired incentive effects.)
This whole perspective was one that was shared by many reformers in my father’s generation. For me one of the touchstones of it in individual conduct is attitudes to classes on airlines. Why would you want to sit in business class? Well the seats and food are nicer, but for three times the price of an economy fare? Are they that nicer? Further there’s something a tad awkward about lording it over others by sitting at the front of the plane. Some people who could clearly afford it don’t fancy it. The great billionaire philanthropist Chuck Feeney doesn’t like flying up the front of the plane as he travels the world giving his money away. That’s not like Cardinal Pell, the apostle of Christ for whom business class is not adequate. He travels first.
And in the 1980s and even the 90s I think there were a few politicians who travelled economy class. I think Peter Walsh was one of them. I wonder if any do today. How do the Greens travel? Even by the time I got to the Productivity Commission – then the Industry Commission in 1993 – I’d say maybe 15 odd per cent of the staff entitled to travel business class travelled economy class. I doubt there’d be many there now, but I hope I’m wrong. I recall one Commission meeting where we were encouraged to travel business class.