David R. Henderson  

From the Vault: My Response to Victor Fuchs

Single Motherhood and Poverty:... Revisiting the 1930s...

Stanford University health economist Victor Fuchs wrote an op/ed in the Wall Street Journal on January 26, 1996, titled "The Tofu Triangle." Here is my letter in response. The Journal published it on February 22, 1996, titling it "Equal Justice."

In his otherwise excellent editorial-page article ("The Tofu Triangle," Jan. 26) stating that economists should make their values explicit and not mix them with their analysis, my fellow health economist Victor Fuchs smuggles in his own value. In so doing, he does the very thing that he castigates other economists for.

Specifically, in discussing the Republicans' plans to reform Medicare, Mr. Fuchs posits a tradeoff between efficiency and justice. His bottom line is that the Republicans' plan is efficient but unjust. Why? He never says. But he seems to equate justice and equality of wealth. His is the same kind of value judgment that says it's unfair that Bill Gates has umpteen billion dollars, not a dime of which he stole. Had Mr. Fuchs followed the advice he gives other economists, he would have written that the tradeoff on health policy is between efficiency and equality, and then have said that he thinks inequality is unjust. But had he done so, his slam on the Republican plan would have lost much of its impact.

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COMMENTS (4 to date)
Richard writes:

Even changing "justice" to "equality" doesn't get us to a full disclosure of personal values. Equality can mean equal treatment under the law, equality of opportunity, equality of access to public education, etc. In most football games the referees treat the two teams equally, yet one often routes the other. Fuchs seems to mean a specific type of equality, i.e., equality of income. Equating this type of equality with equality as a general concept concedes too much ground to Fuchs, as this type -- as opposed to equality of treatment before the law, etc. -- is the most controversial.

David R. Henderson writes:

Obviously, I was talking about equality of wealth. That’s the term I used early in the paragraph. I didn’t see the need to repeat it.

Richard writes:

David, I should have been clear that my comment wasn't meant to be a critique of your article, with which I agree. I was just trying to emphasize the notion that, among "Progressives," the term equality is used to refer to a very specific type of leveling of outcomes that is not embraced by most people who warm to the sound of "equality" as an abstract civic principle. So, to me, even that term is -- like "justice," or "progress" for that matter -- being hijacked from its generally understood meaning when used in phrases like "the efficiency versus equality tradeoff."

Eric Falkenstein writes:

Aristotle's Politics notes that justice is all about equality, and the problem is always: equality of what? Unfortunately, some think people who are equal in any respect are equal all respects; because men are equally free, they claim to be absolutely equal, and thus equally deserving of health care, income, and wealth.

The bottom line for me is that many people are Rawlsians, or radical egalitarians. I don't think it's compatible with economic growth, liberty, and freedom, but they find that self-serving.

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