Education and Income Inequality

David Brooks argues in a recent New York Times editorial that many leading Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, are shifting from a focus on human capital progressivism, which stresses education and skills improvement as the key to reducing income inequality, to an emphaisis on redistributive progressivism, which argues for an inherently corrupt system that favors the elites and must be corrected through measures like more progressive taxation.

Much to the delight of libertarians like myself, Brooks argues this is a mistake. He points out that Americans with a bachelor’s degree make nearly double the hourly wage of Americans without one. “On an individual level, getting more skills is the single best thing you can do to improve your wages,” he writes.

On an Individual Level?

The troubling point is the introductory clause. I would certainly advise any individual person to stay in school, get a degree, continue to develop skills. But Hillary Clinton and her Democratic colleagues are not addressing any individual person. They are looking at the American economy as a whole. If the American economy as a whole improved its skills, would that close the income inequality gap? I am not sure. Imagine if we were miraculously able to increase the college graduation rate from its current 29% to let’s say 39%. Would that mean 10% of people suddenly doubled their wages? Or would it mean a lot more people in low-paying jobs with college educations?

I am not arguing against higher education. I will certainly encourage my children to pursue college, and likely graduate, degrees. But if the system is inherently corrupt – which, despite my libertarian inclinations, I find harder and harder to dispute – greater educational attainment will just produce more low-income people with expensive educations.

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