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May 4, 2014

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Posted: 04 May 2014 12:03 AM PDT

'Pareto, Inequality and Government Debt'

Posted: 03 May 2014 09:31 AM PDT

Simon Wren-Lewis:

Pareto, Inequality and Government Debt: Or is economics inherently right wing?
I noted in passing in an earlier post that Pareto efficiency was obviously not a value free criteria. So those who argue that economists should only look for Pareto improvements – changes where no one is made worse off – are making a value judgement. One, and only one, of its implicit normative assumptions is that inequality does not matter. For others see, for example, Elizabeth Anderson (pdf, HT Anon). ...
The only possibly original point I wanted to make here is that the absurdity of restricting policies to Pareto improvements becomes immediately apparent if we think about government debt. Measures to reduce currently high levels of debt will almost certainly make current generations worse off, because they will have to pay the taxes (or whatever) to get debt down. Yet I do not often hear people arguing that we have to let debt stay high because the government can only implement Pareto improvements. ...
Why is there this emphasis on only looking at Pareto improvements? I think you would have to work quite hard to argue that it was intrinsic to economic theory - it would be, and is, quite possible to do economics without it. (Many economists use social welfare functions.) But one thing that is intrinsic to economic theory is the diminishing marginal utility of consumption. Couple that with the idea of representative agents that macro uses all the time (who share the same preferences), and you have a natural bias towards equality. Focusing just on Pareto improvements neutralises that possibility. Now I mention this not to imply that the emphasis put on Pareto improvements in textbooks and elsewhere is a right wing plot - I do not know enough to argue that. But it should make those (mainstream or heterodox) who believe that economics is inherently conservative pause for thought.

[There is quite a bit more detail in the original.]

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