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Your Income, Your Liberty, and Your Equality?

November 13, 2009

Excessive salaries generate popular fury, especially when opportunity shrinks and recession lingers.

But, differences in income are important and necessary. Higher incomes incentivize and reward hard work, innovation, insight, skills, risk-taking, timing, even luck. We should be free to rise. Liberty is at risk when income is constrained.

However, when some starve or get inadequate education, everyone pays a penalty for this economic drag, and society is culpable. We have responsibilities. Equality is at risk as the gap between rich and poor increases.

This fury over salaries underscores a fundamental tension between liberty and equality. If I am to be equal, all must have constraints. If I am to be free, all must be able to rise or fall.

Where does America really stand? The respected Gini index measures levels of inequality.

Four South African countries are the most unequal. The U.S. is 42nd, Russia 54th, Taiwan 98th, and Sweden the most equal at 134th.

America's neighbors are Jamaica, Uruguay, Ivory Coast, and Cameroon. The next most unequal western developed countries are Portugal and Israel ranking 68th.

America's inequality score is unsettling, and the inequality has accelerated dramatically since the 1980s.

Perhaps the public fury over Wall Street is symptomatic of a deeper ambivalence? Regarding income, what is the right balance between liberty and equality?

What do you think? How do we unchain the creative force of competition and leash the excess?

By William Vocke

For more information, see the CIA World Factbook's Gini Index country comparisons.

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