Thursday, April 05, 2012

Really, Mr. Chait, Really?

Consider two passages.  First, a definition:

Social Darwinism is a belief, popular in the late Victorian era in England, America, and elsewhere, which states that the strongest or fittest should survive and flourish in society, while the weak and unfit should be allowed to die.

Second, a statement about public policy:

Public goods and Pigovian subsidies lead naturally to a tax system in which higher income individuals pay more in taxes. Surely, those with higher income and greater property benefit more from a governmental system that protects property rights. Moreover, the monetary value attached to other public goods (such as parks and playgrounds) and to positive-externality activities (such as basic research) very likely rises with income as well. Indeed, if the income elasticity of demand for these services exceeds one, as is plausible, a progressive tax system is perfectly consistent with the Just Deserts Theory.

What about transfer payments to the poor? These can be justified along similar lines. As long as people care about others to some degree, antipoverty programs are a type of public good. [Thurow 1971] That is, under this view, the government provides for the poor not simply because their marginal utility is high but because we have interdependent utility functions. Put differently, we would all like to alleviate poverty. But because we would prefer to have someone else pick up the tab, private charity can’t do the job. Government-run antipoverty programs solve the free-rider problem among the altruistic well-to-do.

Now here is the question: Is the person who wrote the second passage a Social Darwinist as defined in the first passage?

I think the answer is pretty clearly NO.  But nonetheless, Jonathan Chait calls me a Social Darwinist, citing as evidence the paper from which the second passage above is taken.  True, he quotes a different passage from that paper, but one would think a prominent journalist like Mr. Chait would read the entire paper and characterize the arguments fully before throwing around a pejorative like "Social Darwinist."