The Sunday before last I woke up to a couple of articles in the New York Times Magazine and The Economist. In the first article, the New York Times ethicist was asked a question about Halloween candy: Are dentists who purchase candy from kids (thus protecting their teeth) and donate it to poor families engaging in “thoughtless, unethical and unprofessional” behavior? The Economist article summarized research on cash transfers to the poor, concluding that “Giving money to poor people works surprisingly well. But it cannot deal with the deeper causes of poverty”. In both articles, the fundamental question is how we measure and judge improvements in welfare based on what people consume. But while the ethicist takes the question head on, The Economist does not even get the question right.
To see this, recall that in welfare economics there are two rationales for government interventions to make people better off. First, governments fix market failures. If the market does not produce efficient outcomes, the government can use taxes and subsidies to make things better. Externalities are classic examples. I don’t worry that my pollution makes others worse off and therefore “over pollute”. But the government can tax that pollution to the point where I behave “as if” I care about others.
Second, governments redistribute income by giving cash to the poor. If, in society’s judgment, an alternate distribution of consumption is better, government could achieve that distribution by redistributing “endowments” or cash from one party to another.