My short essay on opportunity concepts for South Africa

Here is the piece (pdf), here is the broader symposium, with other notable contributors, including Bill Easterly, Charles Kenny, and Brandon Fuller.  Here is one excerpt from my essay:

…we should keep in mind the strictures of Dani Rodrik that every country, or sometimes every region, is different. Nonetheless this reorientation of measures of progress would have some implications for policy analysis. In particular, high levels of inequality, inequality of opportunity, and relative income mobility would not be seen as problems per se.

Furthermore, the frequent appearance of those concepts in political and also scholarly rhetoric would be seen as misleading and a distraction. The focus instead would be on expanding the absolute size of opportunities for the poor. To make this more concrete, consider a policy change which benefitted both the rich and the poor. Many of the equality metrics would have to struggle with such a policy, which might increase inequality in some manner, whereas the approach recommended in this paper could endorse it wholeheartedly.

It is interesting to note the recent visit of Thomas Piketty to South Africa. He called for a national minimum wage, greater worker participation in company boards, and land reform. Those are all attempts to provide equalizing measures across one dimension or another. Although some parts of those ideas may have merit, they do not seem overall focused on incentivizing wealth creation and opportunity. Piketty even stated: “I think it’s fair to say that black economic empowerment strategies, which were mostly based on voluntary market transactions […] were not that successful in spreading wealth.” It perhaps would have been more appropriate to note South Africa remains a highly regulated, highly legally privileged, and indeed mercantilist economy; the country ranked only number 72 on the 2015 Heritage Foundation Index of Economic Freedom. So perhaps empowerment based on voluntary market transactions has not yet really been tried.

The absolute opportunities approach also suggests a different emphasis for a topic such as land reform. Many arguments for land reform focus on the difference in the land holdings between the rich and the poor, yet perhaps those are not the relevant numbers. A better focus would be the following question: “by how much would receiving more land elevate the opportunities of the poor?” If indeed the answer to that question is optimistic, the case for land reform will be stronger.

Do read the whole thing.


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