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Dumb or Misunderstood?

I came across the blog “Squashed” via Marco in January. What I read has sat in the back of my mind and bugged me, so I have finally taken the time to write about it.

In “Dumb Metaphor Friday: 'Growing the pie',” the author says:

The conservative criticism of redistribution is a claim that conservatives would rather expand the (economic) pie than ensure that it is divided evenly among everybody. The theory is that everybody then even the guy destined to have a smaller piece comes out ahead, even if the pieces aren’t the same size. This argument is apparently very persuasive to people who think pies expand (perhaps when they’re growing on pie trees)? Those of us who have actually baked pies know that they stay the same size—and all you can do is cut them equally.

It's true: the delicious, fruit-filled pastries do not expand. Pie charts do not usually expand, either. If they do, it is only for visual purposes and the chart still represents 100% of whatever is being measured. Many times the thing that is being measured can expand, though.

In this case, wealth does indeed expand. As I have said before, wealth is not a zero-sum and the possibility to create wealth is practically limitless. This means that the effective amount of wealth represented by a slice of the pie (chart) can be greater than the same size slice at a point in the past. This distinction between effective and relative amounts probably means that pie charts are not the best way to measure economic well-being, but I do not think that makes the metaphor dumb or incorrect.

An expansion in actual wealth is an expansion in actual wealth, regardless of whether the relative amount changes on a pie chart or not.

I think a much simpler criticism of forced redistribution would be: it's wrong to steal.

Related: John Altenmueller also has a good reply: “Pies and apples.”

View responses or leave your own response


Dan ( Dan ("Squashed")
In my defense, I fully understand that wealth is not static in the way that pies are. (I stand by my assertion that pies do not grow so any discussion of “growing the pie” utilizes a stupid metaphor.)

I'll leave aside the “it's wrong to steal” question--because it's getting later on a weeknight and my thoughts on that take a bit more writing. (Short version: “Stealing” implies ownership. Society facilitates wealth accumulation. Taxes are society holding back a fraction of the debt we rightfully owe society for important social ends.)

The real question on redistribution is whether it is antithetical to economic growth. I don't think it is. Growth is facilitated by efficiently using resources--and things like unemployment, lack of education, and lack of societal participation are hugely inefficient.

Thanks for commenting back. I disagree strongly on the stealing question. There absolutely is (or “should be”) ownership when it comes to wealth that someone creates or accumulates.

I think the logical end of what you're saying is that nobody is entitled to any of the wealth they create or accumulate. Instead, society must have ownership of it completely. That is the only way society could have a just claim to hold back whatever percentage they deem fit.

Society is only a group of people and just because a plurality or majority of them decide they are “rightfully” owed something, does not make it just.

Let me know if you decide to write more on the topic. I would enjoy reading it.

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