Pigou, a key bridge figure in the history of his field, was one of the earliest classical economists to notice that markets do not always produce the best possible social outcomes. The pollution generated by a factory imposes costs on those who live downstream or in the path of its airborne emissions. The risks assumed by banks leading up to the recent financial crisis imposed costs on just about everybody. Market transactions often generate what economists call “externalities” — side effects, sometimes positive but often negative, that affect people who do not participate in the transaction.
Pigou, having recognized the problem, was the first to propose a solution. Society should tax the negative externalities and subsidize the positive ones. This simple notion — if you want less of something, tax it — is why his ideas periodically bubble up in the service of combating a recognizable cost to society, like pollution. We think that his approach offers an answer to another great problem of our time: inequality.
Does the extreme degree of inequality in America today really create, as Pigou would put it, negative externalities? Does the fact that hedge-fund manager Mr. Jones rakes in 100 or 1,000 times what office manager Mrs. Smith earns impose costs on everybody else? Plenty of Americans think not. Defenders of our skewed income distribution point out that a free-enterprise system requires some inequality. Unequal rewards give people an incentive to work hard and acquire new skills. They encourage inventors to invent, entrepreneurs to start companies, investors to take risks. It’s fine in this view that some people get astronomically rich. As Mitt Romney likes to say, “I’m not going to apologize for being successful.”
On the other side, many of us have a gut feeling that inequality has gone too far. Our times are reminiscent of the Gilded Age’s worst excesses. Hence the popularity of the Occupy Wall Street movement’s slogan, “We are the 99 percent.”
LVTfan here: Wouldn't it be better to prevent the inequality by such measures as treating the natural creation as our common treasure, instead of permitting its privatization and then taxing back what is taken? Treating the natural creation, and that which the community creates by its presence and its investment in public goods -- schools, roads, libraries, etc. -- as our COMMON treasure would create equal opportunity for all, a much better idea than permitting some to capture it and then taxing some of their booty back after the fact. When we let some reap what others sow, and then take back a share after the fact, we're still permitting them to reap which deprives the sowers of that right. Whether it be nature doing the sowing, or the community as a whole, no good can come of permitting the privatization of that. Henry George, in "Progress and Poverty" and "Social Problems" showed the logical, efficient, just way to do better.