Smaller Pie, Fairer Slices

Smaller pie, fairer slices was originally posted to the Art of the Possible blog by Angelica aka Battlepanda.

Sorry for the lack of posting, all. I’ve been on holiday in Japan and then started a new job the day after I got back to Taipei. But one of the good things going on holiday is good for is reading books, which I never seem to get around to in my normal life anymore. From my vacation reading (Development as Freedom by Amartya Sen) comes this fascinating nugget about life expectancy in Britain.

Interdecade comparisons, based on decadal censuses, show that by a very wide margin the most speedy expansion of life expectancy occurred precisely during the two “war decades” [that is, 1911-21 and 1940-51]. While in the other decades life expectancy rose rather moderately (between one and four years), in each of the two war decades it jumped up by nearly seven years.

Britain had to undergo food rationing during the wars, especially during WWII. But what food there was, people were willing to share in a time of national crisis, posits Sen, and that accounts for the counterintuitive increase in life expectancy during the two decades containing the world wars.

Each war situation produced much greater sharing of means of survival, including sharing of health care and the limited food supply (through rationing and subsidized nutrition)…It is in fact, confirmed by detailed nutritional studies that during the Second World War, even though the per capita availability of food fell significantly in Britain, cases of undernourishment also declined sharply, and extreme undernourishment almost entirely disappeared. Mortality rates also went down sharply (except of course for war mortality itself). A similar thing had happened during the First World War.

To me, the fact that such an important measurement of welfare as an expansion of life expectancy can go up during such times of deprivation because of greater sharing of what’s available is a compelling reason to adopt a liberal rather than a libertarian point of view. Some sharing in the form of government sponsored healthcare and social safety nets to take the edge off inequality is humane and increases total welfare. I therefore find those programs desirable even though they mean I would have to pay taxes I’d rather not and at a cost to total economic efficiency.

Inequality is a scourge that is not going to go away. As technology advances, multiplying the productivity of the most skilled workers and rendering the services of less skilled workers increasingly worthless, we are entering a time where even healthy economic growth on a macro level do not translate into higher household incomes for the bulk of us.

This entry was posted on Saturday, April 5th, 2008.

Be sure to check out the comment section on the original post, thanks to the Way Back Machine.

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