Equity / Efficiency trade-off

Covered this online with my A2 class this week – Unit 3 of the CIE course. The efficiency losses when the government raises taxes  and pays transfers means that interventions to improve equity have a cost. Income can only be taken away from the rich and given to the poor in a leaky bucket. The ‘leaks’ are efficiency costs represented by the lost incentive to work and produce caused by the taxes taken and the transfers given. The lost output means that there is less to share out.

The size of the leaky bucket effect is one about which there is considerable disagreement. The New Right for instance, argue that the efficiency losses associated with redistributive policies are very large indeed. Government, too, has considered the problem and tax changes made in New Zealand in the eighties have been designed to minimise the efficiency cost of taxes. The marginal rate of tax on income had been brought down from 66 per cent to 33 per cent because it is believed that high rates on high incomes have very bad side-effects. Not only do they discourage work effort, but they also encourage speculative activity and tax evasion.

The equity and efficiency trade-off may be shown in a very abstract way by a frontier such as the above. At a point such as A, the economy is highly efficient but there is a very unequal distribution of income so that equity is low. To improve equity and achieve a point like B. income must be transferred and in the process some efficiency is lost. Equity gains are at the expense of efficiency. As more and more equity is pursued, the steepness of the efficiency/equity frontier increases as the efficiency costs become higher and higher.

As in production possibility analysis, if the economy is not on the equity/efficiency frontier but inside it at a point such as C, then it should be possible to have more of both equity and efficiency. If jobs can be found for the unemployed, the use of the additional scarce resources should improve efficiency and the distribution of income.

The New Right not only argue that the trade-off is a poor one as the efficiency losses from redistribution are very large, but also feel that the goal of more equality is not very desirable in any case.  Those who put the case for equity- i.e., the Social Left take the view that concern about the ‘leaky bucket’ or the efficiency costs is not justified. They argue that people work for a whole host of reasons including pride in doing a good job and are not much affected by high marginal tax rates. For them, the goal of more equality is highly desirable.

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