Redistribution of income and wealth

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German progressive tax rates for different incomes. Progressive tax systems require the rich to pay taxes at higher rates, to make it possible to raise larger total sums to pay for governmental functions. Some argue such systems are primarily for wealth redistribution. Income Tax Germany 2010.png
German progressive tax rates for different incomes. Progressive tax systems require the rich to pay taxes at higher rates, to make it possible to raise larger total sums to pay for governmental functions. Some argue such systems are primarily for wealth redistribution.

Redistribution of income and wealth is the transfer of income and wealth (including physical property) from some individuals to others by means of a social mechanism such as taxation, charity, welfare, public services, land reform, monetary policies, confiscation, divorce or tort law. [2] The term typically refers to redistribution on an economy-wide basis rather than between selected individuals.


Interpretations of the phrase vary, depending on personal perspectives, political ideologies and the selective use of statistics. [3] It is frequently heard in politics, usually referring to perceived redistributions from those who have more to those who have less. Occasionally, however, it is used to describe laws or policies that cause opposite redistributions that shift monetary burdens from wealthy to low-income individuals. [4]

The phrase can be emotionally charged and used to exaggerate or misconstrue the motivations of opponents during political debates. For example, if an individual politician calls for increased taxes on higher income individuals, their sole focus may be to raise funds for specific government programs, tapping the largest available sources while realizing that low-wage workers have little or no excess income to draw tax revenues from. Political opponents might argue that this politician's prime motivation is to redistribute wealth, when redistribution is not their goal.

The phrase is often coupled with the term "class warfare", with high income earners and the wealthy portrayed as victims of unfairness and discrimination. [5]

Redistribution tax policy should not be confused with predistribution policies. "Predistribution" is the idea that the state should try to prevent inequalities occurring in the first place rather than through the tax and benefits system once they have occurred. For example, a government predistribution policy might require employers to pay all employees a living wage, not just a minimum wage, as a "bottom-up" response to widespread income inequalities or high poverty rates.

Many alternate taxation proposals have been floated without the political will to alter the status quo. One example is the proposed "Buffett Rule", which is a hybrid taxation model composed of opposing systems, intended to minimize the favoritism of the special interest tax design.

The effects of a redistribution system are actively debated on ethical and economic grounds. The subject includes analysis of its rationales, objectives, means, and policy effectiveness. [6] [7]


In ancient times, redistribution operated as a palace economy. [8] These economies were centrally based around the administration, so the dictator or pharaoh had both the ability and the right to say who was taxed and who got special treatment.

Another early form of wealth redistribution occurred in Plymouth Colony under the leadership of William Bradford. [9] Bradford records in his diary that this "common course" [9] bred confusion, discontent, distrust, and the colonists looked upon it as a form of slavery. [10]

A closely related term, distributism (also known as distributionism or distributivism), is an economic ideology that developed in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century based upon the principles of Catholic social teaching, especially the teachings of Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Rerum novarum and Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo anno. More recently, Pope Francis in his Evangelii Gaudium, echoed the earlier Papal statements. [11]

Role in economic systems

Different types of economic systems feature varying degrees of interventionism aimed at redistributing income, depending on how unequal their initial distributions of income are. Free-market capitalist economies tend to feature high degrees of income redistribution. However, Japan's government engages in much less redistribution because its initial wage distribution is much more equal than Western economies. Likewise, the socialist planned economies of the former Soviet Union and Eastern bloc featured very little income redistribution because private capital and land income – the major drivers of income inequality in capitalist systems – was virtually nonexistent; and because the wage rates were set by the government in these economies. [12]

How views on redistribution are formed

The context that a person is in can influence their views on redistributive policies. [13] [14] [15] For example, despite both being Western civilizations, typical Americans and Europeans do not have the same views on redistribution policies. [16] This phenomenon persists even among people who would benefit most from redistributive policies, as poor Americans tend to favor redistributive policy less than equally poor Europeans. [17] [16] Research shows this is because when a society has a fundamental belief that those who work hard will earn rewards from their work, the society will favor lower redistributive policies. [18] However, when a society as a whole believes that some combination of outside factors, such as luck or corruption, can contribute to determining one's wealth, those in the society will tend to favor higher redistributive policies. [18] This leads to fundamentally different ideas of what is ‘just’ or fair in these countries and influences their overall views on redistribution. [13]  

Another context that can influence one's ideas of redistributive policies is the social class that one is born into. [14] People tend to favor redistributive policy that will help the groups that they are a member of. [19]   This is displayed in a study of Latin American lawmakers, where it is shown that lawmakers born into a lower social class tend to favor more redistributive policies than their counterparts born into a higher social class. [14] Research has also found that women generally support redistribution more than men do, though the strength of this preference varies across countries. [20] While literature remains mixed on if monetary gain is the true motivation behind favoring redistributive policies, most researchers accept that social class plays some role in determining someone's views towards redistributive policies. [21] Nonetheless, the classic theory that individual preferences for redistribution decrease with their income, leading to societal preferences for redistribution that increase with income inequality [22] has been disputed. [23]

Modern forms of redistribution

The redistribution of wealth and its practical application are bound to change with the continuous evolution of social norms, politics, and culture. Within developed countries income inequality has become a widely popular issue that has dominated the debate stage for the past few years. The importance of a nation's ability to redistribute wealth in order to implement social welfare programs, maintain public goods, and drive economic development has brought various conversations to the political arena. A country's means of redistributing wealth comes from the implementation of a carefully thought out well described system of taxation. The implementation of such a system would aid in achieving the desired social and economic objective of diminishing social inequality and maximizing social welfare. There are various ways to impose a tax system that will help create a more efficient allocation of resources, in particular, many democratic, even socialist governments utilize a progressive system of taxation to achieve a certain level of income redistribution. In addition to the creation and implementation of these tax systems, "globalization of the world economy [has] provided incentives for reforming the tax systems" across the globe. [24] Along with utilizing a system of taxation to achieve the redistribution of wealth, the same socio-economic benefit could be achieved if there are appropriate policies enacted within current political infrastructure that addresses these issues. Modern thinking towards the topic of the redistribution of wealth, focuses on the concept that economic development increases the standard of living across an entire society.

Today, income redistribution occurs in some form in most democratic countries through economic policies. Some redistributive policies attempt to take wealth, income, and other resources from the "haves" and give them to the "have-nots", but many redistributions go elsewhere.

In his article Redistribution, [25] Dwight R. Lee states:

"…most government transfers are not from the rich to the poor. Instead, government takes from the relatively unorganized (e.g., consumers and general taxpayers) and gives to the relatively organized (groups politically organized around common interests, such as the elderly, sugar farmers, and steel producers). The most important factor in determining the pattern of redistribution appears to be political influence, not poverty."

"The direct transfer of cash and services is only one way that government transfers income. Another way is by restricting competition among producers. The inevitable consequence—indeed, the intended consequence—of these restrictions is to enrich organized groups of producers at the expense of consumers. Here, the transfers are more perverse than with Medicare and Social Security. They help relatively wealthy producers at the expense of relatively poor (and, in some cases, absolutely poor) consumers. Many government restrictions on agricultural production, for example, allow farmers to capture billions of consumer dollars through higher food prices (see agricultural subsidy programs). Most of these dollars go to relatively few large farms, whose owners are far wealthier than the average taxpayer and consumer (or the average farmer). Also, wealthy farmers receive most of the government’s direct agricultural subsidies."

Some consider the U.S. government's progressive-rate income tax policy as redistributive, because some of the tax revenue goes to social programs such as welfare and Medicare. [26]

In a progressive income tax system, a high income earner will pay a higher tax rate (a larger percentage of their income) than a low income earner; and therefore, will pay more total dollars per person. [27]

Other taxation-based methods of redistributing income are the negative income tax for very low income earners and tax loopholes (tax avoidance) for the better-off.

Two other common types of governmental redistribution of income are subsidies and vouchers (such as food stamps). These transfer payment programs are funded through general taxation, but benefit the poor or influential special interest groups and corporations. [25] While the persons receiving transfers from such programs may prefer to be directly given cash, these programs may be more palatable to society than cash assistance, as they give society some measure of control over how the funds are spent. [28]

It has been argued that the U.S. Social Security program redistributes income from the rich to the poor, but the majority of those receiving Social Security earned their benefits through tax withholding from their paychecks or quarterly income statements, and most benefits are indexed to the actual earning levels of individual workers. Only the highest- and lowest-income workers fall outside normal rates. In addition, Social Security deductions are only taken from the first $137,700 in income, with nothing further taken from higher incomes over that amount. In other words, a person who earns $100 million a year pays the same Social Security tax as another worker who earns $137,700 a year.

Contrary to popular belief, a recent study [29] found that, overall, the Social Security System was slightly regressive against the poor and not redistributive, once important factors were taken into account (for example, the longer life expectancy of the wealthy when compared to the poor gives them more years to collect benefits).

Governmental redistribution of income may include a direct benefit program involving either cash transfers or the purchase of specific services for an individual. Medicare is one example. [30] Medicare is a government-run health insurance program that covers people age 65 or older, certain younger people with disabilities, and people with end-stage renal disease (permanent kidney failure requiring dialysis or a transplant, sometimes called ESRD). This is a direct benefit program because the government is directly providing health insurance for those who qualify.

The difference between the Gini index for the income distribution before taxation and the Gini index after taxation is an indicator for the effects of such taxation.[ citation needed ]

Wealth redistribution can be implemented through land reform that transfers ownership of land from one category of people to another, or through inheritance taxes or direct wealth taxes. Before-and-after Gini coefficients for the distribution of wealth can be compared.

Class analysis

One study[ clarification needed ] suggests that "the middle class faces a paradoxical status" in that they tend to vote against income redistribution, even though they would benefit economically from it. [31]


The objectives of income redistribution are to increase economic stability and opportunity for the less wealthy members of society and thus usually include the funding of public services.

One basis for redistribution is the concept of distributive justice, whose premise is that money and resources ought to be distributed in such a way as to lead to a socially just, and possibly more financially egalitarian, society. Another argument is that a larger middle class benefits an economy by enabling more people to be consumers, while providing equal opportunities for individuals to reach a better standard of living. Seen for example in the work of John Rawls,[ citation needed ] another argument is that a truly fair society would be organized in a manner benefiting the least advantaged, and any inequality would be permissible only to the extent that it benefits the least advantaged.

Some proponents of redistribution argue that capitalism results in an externality that creates unequal wealth distribution. [32]

Many economists have argued that wealth and income inequality are a cause of economic crises, [33] and that reducing these inequalities is one way to prevent or ameliorate economic crises, with redistribution thus benefiting the economy overall. This view was associated with the underconsumptionism school in the 19th century, now considered an aspect of some schools of Keynesian economics; it has also been advanced, for different reasons, by Marxian economics. It was particularly advanced in the US in the 1920s by Waddill Catchings and William Trufant Foster. [34] [35] More recently, the so-called "Rajan hypothesis" [36] posited that income inequality was at the basis of the explosion of the 2008 financial crisis. [37] The reason is that rising inequality caused people on low and middle incomes, particularly in the US, to increase their debt to keep up their consumption levels with that of richer people. Borrowing was particularly high in the housing market and deregulation in the financial sector made it possible to extend lending in sub-prime mortgages. The downturn in the housing market in 2007 halted this process and triggered the financial crisis. Nobel Prize laureate Joseph Stiglitz, along with many others, [36] supports this view. [38]

There is currently a debate concerning the extent to which the world's extremely rich have become richer over recent decades. Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century is at the forefront of the debate, mainly focusing on within-country concentration of income and wealth. Branko Milanovic provided evidence of increasing inequality at the global level, showing how the group of so-called "global plutocrats", i.e. the richest 1% in the world income distribution, were the main beneficiaries of economic growth in the period 1988–2008. [39] More recent analysis supports this claim, as 27% of total economic growth worldwide accrued to the top 1% of the world income distribution in the period 1980–2016. [40] The approach underpinning these analyses has been somehow critiqued in certain publications such as The Economist . [41]

Moral obligation

Peter Singer's argument contrasts to Thomas Pogge's in that he states we have an individual moral obligation to help the poor. [42] [43]

Economic effects of inequality

Number of high-net-worth individuals in the world in 2011 Number of High Net Worth Individuals, 2011 v4.jpg
Number of high-net-worth individuals in the world in 2011

Using statistics from 23 developed countries and the 50 states of the US, British researchers Richard G. Wilkinson and Kate Pickett show a correlation between income inequality and higher rates of health and social problems (obesity, mental illness, homicides, teenage births, incarceration, child conflict, drug use), and lower rates of social goods (life expectancy, educational performance, trust among strangers, women's status, social mobility, even numbers of patents issued per capita), on the other. [45] The authors argue inequality leads to the social ills through the psychosocial stress, status anxiety it creates. [46]

A 2011 report by the International Monetary Fund by Andrew G. Berg and Jonathan D. Ostry found a strong association between lower levels of inequality and sustained periods of economic growth. Developing countries (such as Brazil, Cameroon, Jordan) with high inequality have "succeeded in initiating growth at high rates for a few years" but "longer growth spells are robustly associated with more equality in the income distribution." [47] [48]


Public choice theory states that redistribution tends to benefit those with political clout to set spending priorities more than those in need, who lack real influence on government. [49]

The socialist economists John Roemer and Pranab Bardhan criticize redistribution via taxation in the context of Nordic-style social democracy, reportedly highlighting its limited success at promoting relative egalitarianism and its lack of sustainability. They point out that social democracy requires a strong labor movement to sustain its heavy redistribution, and that it is unrealistic to expect such redistribution to be feasible in countries with weaker labor movements. They point out that, even in the Scandinavian countries, social democracy has been in decline since the labor movement weakened. Instead, Roemer and Bardhan argue that changing the patterns of enterprise ownership and market socialism, obviating the need for redistribution, would be more sustainable and effective at promoting egalitarianism. [50]

Marxian economists argue that social democratic reforms – including policies to redistribute income – such as unemployment benefits and high taxes on profits and the wealthy create more contradictions in capitalism by further limiting the efficiency of the capitalist system via reducing incentives for capitalists to invest in further production. [51] In the Marxist view, redistribution cannot resolve the fundamental issues of capitalism – only a transition to a socialist economy can.

See also


Opposite tendencies:

Related Research Articles

Tax Method to impose financial charge or other levy upon a taxpayer by a government or functional equivalent

A tax is a compulsory financial charge or some other type of levy imposed on a taxpayer by a governmental organization in order to fund government spending and various public expenditures. A failure to pay, along with evasion of or resistance to taxation, is punishable by law. Taxes consist of direct or indirect taxes and may be paid in money or as its labour equivalent. The first known taxation took place in Ancient Egypt around 3000–2800 BC.

A market economy is an economic system in which the decisions regarding investment, production and distribution are guided by the price signals created by the forces of supply and demand. The major characteristic of a market economy is the existence of factor markets that play a dominant role in the allocation of capital and the factors of production.

Public finance Public finance in economics

Public finance is the study of the role of the government in the economy. It is the branch of economics that assesses the government revenue and government expenditure of the public authorities and the adjustment of one or the other to achieve desirable effects and avoid undesirable ones. The purview of public finance is considered to be threefold, consisting of governmental effects on:

  1. The efficient allocation of available resources;
  2. The distribution of income among citizens; and
  3. The stability of the economy.

A progressive tax is a tax in which the tax rate increases as the taxable amount increases. The term progressive refers to the way the tax rate progresses from low to high, with the result that a taxpayer's average tax rate is less than the person's marginal tax rate. The term can be applied to individual taxes or to a tax system as a whole; a year, multi-year, or lifetime. Progressive taxes are imposed in an attempt to reduce the tax incidence of people with a lower ability to pay, as such taxes shift the incidence increasingly to those with a higher ability-to-pay. The opposite of a progressive tax is a regressive tax. An example of a regressive tax would be a sales tax, with a sales tax a larger proportion of income is taxed to the poor than the rich.

In public-choice theory, as well as in economics, rent-seeking means seeking to increase one's share of existing wealth without creating new wealth. Rent-seeking results in reduced economic efficiency through misallocation of resources, reduced wealth-creation, lost government revenue, heightened income inequality, and potential national decline.

Economic inequality Divergence in economic well-being within a group

There are wide varieties of economic inequality, most notably measured using the distribution of income and the distribution of wealth. Besides economic inequality between countries or states, there are important types of economic inequality between different groups of people.

In economics, income distribution covers how a country's total GDP is distributed amongst its population. Economic theory and economic policy have long seen income and its distribution as a central concern. Classical economists such as Adam Smith (1723-1790), Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), and David Ricardo (1772-1823) concentrated their attention on factor income-distribution, that is, the distribution of income between the primary factors of production. Modern economists have also addressed issues of income distribution, but have focussed more on the distribution of income across individuals and households. Important theoretical and policy concerns include the balance between income inequality and economic growth, and their often inverse relationship.

Democratic capitalism political ideology and economic system

Democratic capitalism, also referred to as market democracy, is a political and economic system that combines capitalism and a strong welfare state curbing the excesses of individual freedom. It integrates resource allocation by marginal productivity, with policies of resource allocation by social entitlement. The policies which characterise the system are enacted by democratic governments.

Economic progressivism is a political and economic philosophy incorporating the socioeconomic principles of social democrats and political progressives. These views are often rooted in the concept of social justice and have the goal of improving the human condition through government regulation, social protections and the maintenance of public goods. It is not to be confused with the more general idea of progress in relation to economic growth.

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Samuel Bowles (economist) American economist

Samuel Stebbins Bowles, is an American economist and Professor Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he continues to teach courses on microeconomics and the theory of institutions. His work belongs to the neo-Marxian tradition of economic thought. However, his perspective on economics is eclectic and draws on various schools of thought, including what he and others refer to as post-Walrasian economics.

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Income inequality in the United States National income inequality

Income inequality in the United States is the extent to which income is distributed in an uneven manner among the American population. It has fluctuated considerably since measurements began around 1915, moving in an arc between peaks in the 1920s and 2000s, with a 30-year period of relatively lower inequality between 1950–1980.

Social inequality Uneven distribution of resources in a society

Social inequality occurs when resources in a given society are distributed unevenly, typically through norms of allocation, that engender specific patterns along lines of socially defined categories of persons. It is the differentiation preference of access of social goods in the society brought about by power, religion, kinship, prestige, race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, and class. Social inequality usually implies to the lack of equality of outcome, but may alternatively be conceptualized in terms of the lack of equality of access to opportunity. The social rights include labor market, the source of income, health care, and freedom of speech, education, political representation, and participation. Social inequality linked to economic inequality, usually described on the basis of the unequal distribution of income or wealth, is a frequently studied type of social inequality. Although the disciplines of economics and sociology generally use different theoretical approaches to examine and explain economic inequality, both fields are actively involved in researching this inequality. However, social and natural resources other than purely economic resources are also unevenly distributed in most societies and may contribute to social status. Norms of allocation can also affect the distribution of rights and privileges, social power, access to public goods such as education or the judicial system, adequate housing, transportation, credit and financial services such as banking and other social goods and services.

Justice and the market is an ethical perspective based upon the allocation of scarce resources within a society. The allocation of resources depends upon governmental policies and the societal attitudes of the individuals who exist within the society. Personal perspectives are based upon ones circle of moral concern or those who the individual deems worthy of moral consideration.

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A property-owning democracy is a social system whereby state institutions enable a fair distribution of productive property across the populace generally, rather than allowing monopolies to form and dominate. This intends to ensure that all individuals have a fair and equal opportunity to participate in the market. It is thought that this system is necessary to break the constraints of welfare-state capitalism and manifest a cooperation of citizens, who each hold equal political power and potential for economic advancement. This form of societal organisation was popularised by John Rawls, as the most effective structure amongst four other competing systems: laissez-faire capitalism, welfare-state capitalism, state socialism with a command economy and liberal socialism. The idea of a property-owning democracy is somewhat foreign in Western political philosophy, despite issues of political disenfranchisement emerging concurrent to the accelerating inequality of wealth and capital ownership over the past four decades.


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  50. "Market socialism, a case for rejuvenation", by Pranab Bardhan and Johen E. Roemer. 1992. Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 6, no. 3, p. 104: "Since it (social democracy) permits a powerful capitalist class to exist (90 percent of productive assets are privately owned in Sweden), only a strong and unified labor movement can win the redistribution through taxes that is characteristic of social democracy. It is idealistic to believe that tax concessions of this magnitude can be effected simply through electoral democracy without an organized labor movement, when capitalists organize and finance influential political parties. Even in the Scandinavian countries, strong apex labor organizations have been difficult to sustain and social democracy is somewhat on the decline now."
  51. Market Socialism: The Debate Among Socialists, by Schweickart, David; Lawler, James; Ticktin, Hillel; Ollman, Bertell. 1998. pp. 60–61: "The Marxist answers involves limiting the incentive system of the market through providing minimum wages, high levels of unemployment insurance, reducing the size of the reserve army of labour, taxing profits, and taxing the wealthy. As a result, capitalists will have little incentive to invest and the workers will have little incentive to work. Capitalism works because, as Marx remarked, it is a system of economic force (coercion)."