Defeating the trickle-down straw man

Jenesa Jeram
Insights Newsletter
14 February, 2014

In debating, speakers are not rewarded for having a superior argument per se. They are rewarded for convincing the audience that they do. The easiest – but ultimately dishonest – way to do this is to caricature the opponent, portraying their argument as ridiculous beyond belief.
Trickle-down economics is an example of a “ridiculous beyond belief” idea; that giving money to the rich will eventually trickle down to the rest of the economy to benefit all. Indeed, the refutation of this theory of trickle-down economics dominates the discourse.
Recently, opposition leader David Cunliffe cited the theory’s failure in his State of the Nation speech, arguing that “The rich are getting much richer, the middle is struggling and the poor are going backwards. It’s the human face of “trickle-down economics”, the idea that if we give more to those at the top, eventually things will get better for the rest of us.”
The problem is, there is no such thing as trickle-down economics. In fact, it is an oxymoron: it has no “economics” in it whatsoever. Thomas Sowell, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution argues convincingly that the theory is a straw man argument – a flimsy invention of those arguing against it so they can easily knock it down. Sowell writes that the idea cannot be found in “even the most voluminous scholarly studies of economic theories”.
Trickle-down economics is a complete caricature of the original arguments supporting economic growth. No economist has ever argued that in order to make a poor person richer you should make a rich person richer first. Economists have, however, argued that economic growth can make us all better off, whether we are rich or poor.
So why has this trickle-down nonsense persisted for so long? Perhaps because it sets the parameters of debate around redistribution, focussing solely on inequalities in wealth, rather than inequalities in capabilities. If wealth is not trickling down naturally through voluntary processes, then it is up to the government to intervene to ensure it does.
However, there is a much better way to deal with inequalities. Instead of trying to correct inequalities through redistribution, we should ensure that everybody has a chance to participate in our growing economy. First and foremost, this means making sure people acquire the right capabilities and education.
Rather than waiting for wealth to trickle-down from the top, the focus should be on ensuring everyone has the ability to swim with the economic tide.

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