White House spokesperson Josh Earnest described Donald Trump as “offensive and toxic,” though that only begins to describe the corrosive effect his bigotry, divisiveness, and xenophobia have on our society. It is at odds with our values as a nation.
It’s also bad for the economy.
A divided society cannot function optimally, especially when the divisions erect walls between groups that are difficult to cross. There are all sorts of attempts to divide us right now, but I want to focus on something other than the bigotry that has been on display in the Republican race for the presidential nomination, the division into winners and losers.
It might seem at first that this is exactly what capitalism does. It uses competition to separate people into various income classes, decide who gets the best jobs, who gets to live in desirable locations – it decides who wins and who loses. Some people, hopefully those who have earned it, do well and others fall behind. This drive to be a winner, it is argued, is the driving force behind capitalism.
To some extent that’s correct, but competitive capitalism is not divisive. In fact, it is just the opposite. Competition is a great leveling force.
For example, when a firm discovers something new, other firms, if they can, will copy it and duplicate the innovation. If a firm finds a highly profitable strategy, other firms will mimic it and take some of those profits for themselves. A firm might temporarily separate itself from other firms in an industry, but competition will bring them back together. Sometimes there are impediments to this leveling process such as patents, monopoly power, and talent that is difficult to duplicate, but competition is always there, waiting and watching.
Competition also drives us forward individually and as a nation. It is a source of new innovation and new technology as people and firms try to find ways to do better than others, to earn higher incomes, gain more popularity, to escape from the pack. People pursue education and other ways to improve themselves not just as a source of knowledge, but also as a way to distinguish themselves.
However, any successful strategy will be followed. There are differences in talents and abilities, of course, that prevent a full leveling, but to the extent possible people will copy anything that leads to success. The fact that this is true – that capitalism will take away gains and differences if it can – is what drives people to continue to try to get ahead. If you rest on your laurels, they will be taken away.
But there is an essential feature in the system that makes it work, and this takes us back to the attempt by Trump and the Republican Party more generally to erect walls between groups of people. The system works best when people have the freedom to enter a new business (if they have the means and are willing to take the risk). It works best when people compete for jobs on equal footing, have access to the same opportunities, when there are no artificial barriers in society that prevent people from reaching their full potential.
Inequality erects those barriers as those who have been fortunate try to protect themselves from capitalism’s inherent tendency to erode away their superior position. They feel threatened by competition and do all they can to avoid it once they have found success. And it’s not just the wealthy. Even the middle class will attempt to erect roadblocks – social, legal, whatever it takes – if it feels threatened from competition from traditionally disadvantaged groups.
When those barriers exist, talent is wasted and we are worse off as a nation. How many great ideas will never be known simply because some people never had the education or opportunity needed to draw the ideas out?
But it’s not just the children of poorer households that are disadvantaged by inequality. The children of the wealthy have no incentive, in many cases, to reach their full potential. Why struggle, take risks, do the hard work that is needed to come up with a new and useful idea when your needs are already taken care of? How much talent is wasted because of this?
It is not inequality that drives innovation and economic growth--it is the attempt to escape the leveling forces of capitalism. If we truly wanted to produce the most economic growth, everyone should start off equal to the extent possible. That way, everyone would have the incentive to differentiate themselves from others, and the means to do so. Inheritance taxes would be 100 percent; schools would be assigned randomly to ensure there’s an incentive to equalize resources, and so on, and so on.
Of course, that will never happen. As we’re seeing in the presidential election, those with means are trying to make the divisions larger rather than break them down. They tell us inequality drives our economy, when in fact inequality is an outcome, the driving force behind it is the desire to escape the equalizing forces of competition. Inequality as a starting point takes away opportunity from the children of the poor, and it dulls incentives for the children of the rich. It’s not hard to understand why recent research has found that high and persistent inequality is associated with lower economic growth.
Separating the winners from the losers is okay if it is based on merit. If we start equally, and have the same chance to get ahead, then unequal outcomes are less of a concern. The problem is that some people are born “winners” even though they have done nothing to earn it, and others have little chance to win due to our unwillingness to truly embrace what equal opportunity means.
And, as Republican campaigns for the presidential nomination are making abundantly clear, that’s just the way some people want it.