Bill Niskanen on Inequality

Our longtime colleague Bill Niskanen passed away yesterday. I will miss him dearly for his good nature, scholarship, wisdom and insight. In light of the debate on inequality, here’s an example of such insight in which he critiques philosopher John Rawls’s views. It is from footnote 21 (page 23) of his book, Autocratic, Democratic, and Optimal Government.

Rawls recognizes that individual well-being is dependent on more than income and wealth, but he does not acknowledge the implications of the fact that the other dimensions of well-being are not fungible. Consider the following example.

One young man is healthy and handsome, spends his days on the beach, has his pick of young women companions, and makes $10,000 a year by busing tables in the evening. Another young man is confined to a wheelchair, has congenital body odor, has never had an intimate relationship, and, with no other life, makes $100,000 a year as an expert computer programmer. In this case, who is worse off? Who should redistribute what to whom and how?