The Public Interest

Equality, growth, and the myopic society

Richard T. Gill

Summer 1997

SOME years ago, in his widely discussed Social Limits to Growth, Fred Hirsch claimed that “economic equality has been a compulsive political idea of the twentieth century.” Taking, as he did, such a century-long perspective, who can possibly doubt this claim? If anything, one would want to broaden it beyond the economic arena to include social, political, educational, and other forms of equality. With respect to the economic issue, however, and specifically with regard to the redistributive role of the government, the evidence for a massive change in our national priorities over the past 100 years is incontestable. A century ago, the entire involvement of federal, state, and local governments in our national economy amounted to something like 8 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Of this, the redistributive component was essentially trivial. After all, in 1895, the Supreme Court had declared the income tax unconstitutional. It wasn’t until 1913 that the Sixteenth Amendment providing for such a tax was ratified.

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