James Piereson of the Manhattan Institute has a superb article in Commentary about “The Redistribution Fallacy.” Here are some passages, starting with an observation that American voters are very skeptical about using government coercion to equalize incomes.
Public-opinion polls over the years have consistently shown that voters overwhelmingly reject programs of redistribution in favor of policies designed to promote overall economic growth and job creation. …While voters are worried about inequality, they are far more skeptical of the capacity of governments to do anything about it without making matters worse for everyone. …Leaving aside the morality of redistribution, the progressive case is based upon a significant fallacy. It assumes that the U.S. government is actually capable of redistributing income from the wealthy to the poor. …Whatever one may think of inequality, redistributive fiscal policies are unlikely to do much to reduce it, a point that the voters seem instinctively to understand.
Piereson points out that big changes in tax policy don’t have much impact, presumably because upper-income taxpayers take sensible and easy steps to protect themselves when they’re targeted by government, but they’re willing toearn and report a lot more income when they’re not being persecuted.
…there are perfectly obvious reasons on both the tax and the spending side as to why redistribution does not succeed in the American system—and probably cannot be made to succeed. …The highest marginal income-tax rate oscillated up and down throughout the 1979–2011 period. It began in 1979 at 70 percent during the Carter presidency. It fell first to 50 and then to 28 percent in the Reagan and Bush years. It rose to 39.6 percent in the 1990s under the Clinton presidency, and went down again to 35 percent from 2003 to 2010. It is now back up to 39.6 percent. The highest rate on capital gains moved within a narrower band, beginning at 28 percent in 1979 and falling as low as 15 percent from 2005 to 2011. The highest rate is currently 23.8 percent. Over this period, regardless of the tax rates, the top 1 percent of the income distribution lost between 1 and 2 percent of the income share after taxes were levied. …At the other end, the poorest quintiles gained almost nothing (about 1 percent on average) in income shares due to cash and in-kind transfers from government. In 2011, for example, the poorest 20 percent of households received 5 percent of (pre-tax) national income, and 6 percent of the after-tax income.
Moreover, it’s laughably inaccurate to claim that the United States doesn’t have a progressive tax system.
Many in the redistribution camp attribute this pattern to a lack of progressivity in the U.S. income-tax system; a higher rate of taxation on the wealthy should solve it, they think. …A 2008 study published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that the United States had the most progressive income-tax system among all 24 OECD countries measured in terms of the share of the tax burden paid by the wealthiest households. …The top 20 percent of earners paid 93 percent of the federal income taxes in 2010 even though they claimed 52 percent of before-tax income. Meanwhile, the bottom 40 percent paid zero net income taxes—zero. For all practical purposes, those in the highest brackets already bear the overwhelming burden of federal income tax, while those below the median income have been taken out of the income-tax system altogether.
Indeed, it’s worth noting that the reason that government is much bigger in Europe is not because they tax the rich more, but rather because they have higher burdens on low- and moderate-income taxpayers (largely because of thevalue-added tax).
Simply stated, there aren’t enough rich people to finance a giant welfare state, particularly when they can easily choose to avoid confiscatory tax levels.
He also explains that redistribution doesn’t work on the spending side of the fiscal ledger.
Turning to the spending side of fiscal policy, we encounter a murkier situation because of the sheer number and complexity of federal spending programs. The House of Representatives Budget Committee estimated in 2012 that the federal government spent nearly $800 billion on 92 separate anti-poverty programs that provided cash assistance, medical care, housing assistance, food stamps, and tax credits to the poor and near-poor. …most of the money goes not to poor or near-poor households but to providers of services. The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan once tartly described this as “feeding the horses to feed the sparrows.” This country pays exorbitant fees to middle-class and upper-middle-class providers to deliver services to the poor. …This is one reason that five of the seven wealthiest counties in the nation are on the outskirts of Washington D.C. and that the average income for the District of Columbia’s top 5 percent of households exceeds $500,000, the highest among major American cities.
Gee, I’m shocked to learn that big government is a racket that lines the pockets of Washington insiders.
So what’s the bottom line?
The federal government is an effective engine for dispensing patronage, encouraging rent-seeking, and circulating money to important voting blocs and well-connected constituencies. It is not an effective engine for the redistribution of income. …those worried about inequality should abandon the failed cause of redistribution and turn their attention instead to broad-based economic growth as the only practical remedy for the sagging incomes of too many Americans.