David R. Henderson  

Inequality in Life Spans

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Do you think the government should forcibly reduce income inequality using taxes and subsidies? If so, wouldn't it follow that the government should forcibly reduce inequality in life spans? No? Then, if you answered Yes to the first question, you might want to rethink your answer. See the article posted today on Econlib by economist Dwight Lee. It's titled, "Should Government Reduce Inequality in Life Spans?"

Great paragraph:

When we seriously consider an attempt to use government power to reduce the gender inequality in life expectancy, the problems that we have always faced when government uses its power to reduce income inequality suddenly become crystal clear. Government transfers to reduce the gender gap in life expectancy would do little more than reduce improvements in both women's and men's life expectancies. For similar reasons, government transfers have done little more than reduce the income growth of both the rich and the poor. So government attempts to reduce life-expectancy inequality by transferring medical expenditures would be silly, but no sillier than its attempts to reduce income inequality by transferring money.

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COMMENTS (22 to date)
Justin writes:

Interesting. I can agree that the government should not try to equalize outcome, but what about opportunity? Certainly kids who group up in wealthier families have greater opportunities through private tutors, private schools, etc...so should the government try to do something to equalize these opportunities? If so, how? (I'm asking because I really don't know.)

Peter writes:

Justin, wealthier families will always have greater opportunities to some extent, not just through access to better education, but also through better social connections that help children become successful much more quickly. I would say that this social factor is more important than the education factor. However, a good way to level the playing field a little bit is to allow poorer students to escape the public school system and take their tax dollars elsewhere.

Andrew Maier writes:

Of course, this fails to note the fact that wealth transfers from rich to poor in fact do transfer wealth. There is no analogous situation with life spans, insomuch as you wouldn't be taking years from women's life span and adding them (however inefficiently) to men's.

Don writes:

Andrew, that's not true. There are lots of scarce resources allocated to lifespan lengthening that have competing uses. For example, one could stop all government funding of breast cancer research and reallocate it toward prostate cancer research.

Calvin writes:

Dwight Lee's point on improving the system as a whole (having the largest aggregate gain even if small interest groups benefit as a result) is to me the most important paragraph in the article.

I think, however, that largest aggregate gain and equality in distribution are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The problem lies in government grants that are too specific. If I chose to fund medical research in general without specifying directions (say into breast cancer research), at least I might describe the market's reaction - however much it chooses to allocate to the different fields of research - as large (in terms of overall gain) and as fair as the market gets. Since we're on the medical thread, any successful government funding programmes so far?

Dwight writes: "Who can deny that it is better to be poor in a prosperous country than in a poor one?" Isn't this a horribly presumptuous statement?

Nichlemn writes:

This is basically a straw man, since few people would support reducing inequality if it did not make a single person better off. Perhaps you would argue that the current system is close to that but that's a separate issue.

Gamut writes:


This is basically a straw man, since few people would support reducing inequality if it did not make a single person better off. Perhaps you would argue that the current system is close to that but that's a separate issue.

And yet, this is quite a good analogue because, as many would argue, wealth transfers scarcely make anyone better off in real terms, they just make them better off relative to others, while depressing the average and median over time. This is precisely what one would expect to happen as a result of health transfers through, say, favourtism and privilege for men in the healthcare sector.

However, knowing this, people often support equal healthcare at the expense of a higher overall quality (even if the increase would mean that the lowest would see an improvement). I know and have attempted to argue with quite a few of such people, Canada is full of them, and the argument they make is actually, "I don't want better healthcare if it means that is will be unequal healthcare." Scary, but very common, and is probably the basis of most egalitarian policies.

The Cupboard Is Bare writes:


"For example, one could stop all government funding of breast cancer research and reallocate it toward prostate cancer research."

I would like to address this idea that men get a raw deal because of women.

Forget about government funding of cancer research, and think only about research that is privately funded.

Ask yourself how many men are willing to stand out in front of a supermarket shaking a can chanting, "Please donate to the 'Foundation for Testicular Cancer Research'"? How many men are willing to organize walkathons and wear tee-shirts that say "I am a Prostate Cancer Survivor"?

Even when privately funded, the squeaky wheel makes the moist noise and as a result, gets the most oil.

David R. Henderson writes:

"The Cupboard is Bare" wrote:
"I would like to address this idea that men get a raw deal because of women."
Certainly Dwight Lee did not make that statement and I know him well enough to know that he doesn't believe that, any more than he believes that poor people get a raw deal because of rich people.

Don writes:

I'm sure the question of why women are more willing to 'squeak' would be very interesting to discuss. But I'm not willing to forget about government funding, as it's the center of the point my comment made in support of David's original post. If you'd like to ignore my point and make your own, I certainly won't stop you, but don't think you're addressing mine.

Tom writes:

Logan's Run is a good example on how to equalize lifespan outcome.

Snark writes:

Reducing gender inequality addresses only part of the problem. The larger issue is whether or not government should work to reduce inequality of life spans in general. It has been determined that there is a very robust correlation between socioeconomic status and health (SES gradient, Whitehall studies, etc.). This data strongly supports the view that mortality is associated with higher income inequality, which brings us back to the question of whether or not government should forcibly reduce income inequality using taxes and subsidies.

The Cupboard Is Bare writes:


My apologies. Didn't mean to miss your point.

Troy Camplin writes:

Now, if we were to take the policy of longevity egalitarianism and the fact that women live longer than men, on average, wouldn't that mean that the government would have to actively kill women once they reached a certain age, to make sure the averages were equal? Or should we instead look to the lowest common denominator, and make sure nobody lives beyond that? Since we are trying to improve longevity, though, it seems that an active campaign of improving health and killing women after a certain age would be the end-result. Of course, I would guess that women knowing they were going to be killed at a certain age would create stress in them, lowering their lifespans naturally. And we all know about the statistics on older men whose wives die before them, so one would expect their lifespans to decrease as well. Thus, a lower-aged equilibrium would eventually come about. Now, simply apply this logic to the economy, and you get what happens in a redistributionist political economy.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

The issue is that a lot of US government wealth redistribution is only quasi-egalitarian in terms of wealth.

There is a lot of transfer from young to old, from well to sick, from home renter to home owner, and now from taxpayer to investment bank and well-paid UAW worker!

Steve Roth writes:

"government transfers have done little more than reduce the income growth of both the rich and the poor"

Faith-based belief, contradicted by the examples of every prosperous country in the world.

There is no thriving, prosperous country that doesn't have significant transfer programs.

But if they'd just adopt your theories, there *would* be some, right?

Facts on the ground...

Eric Crampton writes:

As a previous EconLog blogger once noted, here, the logical conclusion of this sort of thing is forced redistribution of kidneys from those with two to those with none....

Bill writes:

I don't find the analogy persuasive. I don't think income inequality is similar enough to life expectancy by gender to make comparing the two very informative except in the most abstract of terms. Surely life expectancy rises with income, but then plataeus for all practical purposes at some level of income, and that a similar effect exists for both men and women. Surely, at some level of poverty there erupts huge problems like children starving, lawless shanty towns, piracy, walled cities with broken glass on top like some places in Mexico and elsewhere to protect the rich from the poor, etc. Men dying a few years earlier than women does not have this effect.

Also, if one insists on sticking with the analogy, then it should be noted that the difference in life expectancy between the sexes is very low, (maybe?) less than 10% (and probably way less after adjusting for traumatic deaths like gun shots and car crashes). If differences in income were only 10%, then I am sure much far fewer people would favor government intervention for taking 50 cents aways from someone with $10 and giving it to someone with $9. With income redistribution, however, there is no denying that some money from a millionaire is going to help feed and a kid and help pay for diapers. (Sure, a lot is also wastefully transffered back and forth between young workers to retirees, professionals to college students, etc.)

With regard to the philisophical question of whether the government "should" reallocate resources in favor of some and against the interests of others, as opposed to the proper amounts and way it should be done, please reread my first paragraph and consider the empirical evident of every country in the world where you would feel safe living at roughly your current standard of living without any private security whatsoever.

Sometimes the perfect is the enemy of the good. No, the government does not perfectly transfer income, by any stretch of the imagination. But to argue it shouldn't even try because maybe it doesn't need to at all is a very risky proposition.

JT writes:

Bill, redistribution of wealth (at its current magnitude) is a new phenomenon in American history. Are you suggesting American policy for the first 150 years was "risky?"

Troy Camplin writes:

Robbing someone, no matter for what reason, of something that is rightfully their own and honestly earned is neither perfect nor good. In fact, it is the opposite of good. Unless the government does it, we send robbers to jail. That is the fundamental reason why there should never be forcible, government redistribution of money (I don't say wealth, because wealth cannot be redistributed, by only destroyed as money is redistributed).

Bill writes:

JT: I don't follow your argument, because it wants to compare two things that cannot meaningfully be compared. This whole country, however, was founded on the redistribution of wealth. Think of all the exploitation that went on, all the disenfranchisement, all the military takings and arbitrary designations of land and politcal power.

Don't get me wrong a lot of Americans hacked there livings out of the wilderness and didn't have to pay taxes. Do you really think they would not like taxes if they saw our current standard of living though? Hospitals, roads, school for kids, health agencies, etc. That stuff is awesome, and it is the result of technology, knowledge, and redistributive taxes.

Bill writes:


"Robbing" is the unlawful taking of something. If your argument that taking someone's property according to tax laws promulgated by democratically elected officials is always wrong, well, then I respectfully disagree. I feel like you want to turn this into some sort of philosophical debate.

I am game: what right do you have to earn anything? What authority, whether from God, nature, supreme alien being, or yourself allows you to accumulate wealth completely unmolested so long as you "earn" it "honestly"? Fish get eaten by other fish. A squirrel gets no certificate of deposit for the nuts he hides. Some kid in South Ameirca just died after eating scraps from a trash dump, but nobody should be able to tax the earnings of somebody in an industrilized country according to a democratically enacted scheme?

Certainly nature doesn't care about you. Maybe your God does, and says you should be able to keep what you "earn" so long as you're "honest." If the authority is from yourself, then certainly it does not extend to being able to tell me, who gets authority from me, to not sneak into your house and take your T.V. I really want to watch T.V. and I am the boss of me.

If you ask me how I can justify the government taking what is "yours" on a philosophical or moral level, then I ask you to justify "property rights," an abstract and relatively novel concept, on a philosophical or moral level.

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