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Donald Boudreaux

Donald Boudreaux: Income inequality often a result of choice

Donald J. Boudreaux
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Money, dollar bills and coins

Today’s obsession with income inequality is an obsession with just one of the countless dimensions along which we human beings differ from each other. Many of these differences reflect individual choices.

I spend six hours weekly (and weakly) lifting weights at the gym. The modesty of my effort combines with my age (60) to ensure that I’ll never be as buff as younger guys who spend more time lifting weights than I now choose to spend — and more time than I chose to spend at the gym when I was younger. The result is muscle inequality! And I’m tempted to feel envious. I want to be as bulging-
biceped and broad-
shouldered as are my
young gym-rat friends.

Really, though, how seriously do I want this outcome? I could, even at my age, build more muscle if I spent not six hours weekly at the gym but, rather, six hours daily. Also, I’d have bigger muscles today had I spent more time at the gym when I was younger. But all my life I’ve chosen to spend only relatively small amounts of time at the gym.

These choices were mine and I made them freely. Spending more time at the gym means spending less time working (that is, earning income), less time with loved ones and friends, and less time doing other things that I judge to be worthwhile. The fact that I’d be more buff if being more buff were costless is irrelevant. The reality is that it’s not costless. And so the size of my muscles is largely the result of the ways that I’ve chosen to make trade-offs.

So I resist the temptation to envy men with bigger muscles — men whose muscles, it’s relevant to note, were not built with fiber taken from my muscles. And if muscle redistribution by government were possible, I’d oppose it. The result of such redistribution would be less muscle bulk to redistribute. Would you pump weights for hours each day knowing that a large chunk of what you build will be stripped away and given to someone else? More importantly, I’m not entitled to the confiscated fruits of other people’s efforts.

I hear the protests. “That’s different! Muscles aren’t income!”

I grant that some relevant differences separate efforts to build bulging muscles from efforts to earn income. But these differences aren’t as great as most people naively suppose.

Increasing your income-earning ability — like increasing your muscle-building ability — requires self-discipline. Someone who stays in school and studies diligently almost always causes his lifetime income to be higher than it would be had he dropped out of — or goofed off at — school. A worker who is more willing to sacrifice leisure time in order to work longer hours will earn more income than will a worker who chooses to take more leisure.

A worker who chooses to save and invest a high percentage of her income will see her wealth — and income from that wealth — rise faster than will a fellow worker who chooses to save and invest less.

I don’t condemn choices that result in lower incomes. Alice’s preferences for leisure, and her family circumstances, differ from those of Albert. But I do wish that there was more recognition that the incomes that we each earn are, to an extent larger than is popularly recognized, the results of our individual choices.

Donald Boudreaux is a professor of economics and Getchell Chair at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. His column appears twice monthly.