One of our favorite economic parables is the Fish Story, from Paul Zane Pilzer’s 1990 book, “Unlimited Wealth.” It is an excellent tool for thinking about wealth creation, inequality and redistribution.
Imagine 10 people live on an island. Each day they wake up, catch two fish, eat them, and go back to bed. It’s subsistence living at the most basic level. There are no savings – no stored or saved wealth. If someone gets sick and can’t fish, there’s no way to help them. No one has any extra.
Now imagine two of these people dream up a boat and a net. They spend six days catching one fish per day, slowly starving, but they make the boat and net. On the 7th day, they go out into the ocean and catch 20 fish in the net – it worked!!!!
At this point, the island can go one of two ways. First, since two people now produce what previously took ten, resources are freed up to do other things. Farming corn, picking coconuts, cleaning fish, cooking, repairing the boat and net, the possibilities are endless. The island ends up with more (and better!) food, new technologies, higher standards of living, more assets, more wealth, and they can now afford to take care of their sick and vulnerable!
Or…the eight people who don’t have a boat and net could become envious. Two now produce ten fish per day, while everyone else can only produce two. Income inequality now exists: it’s no longer 1:1, it’s 5:1. So, they devise a plan to tax 80% of the income of the boaters (16 fish) and redistribute two fish to each of the other inhabitants.
If the second plan is adopted, no one is better off. Each inhabitant still only has two fish. Moreover, the entrepreneurs have no incentive to fix their boat and net. The island will eventually revert to subsistence.
This is the problem with taxation for redistribution: it robs the economy of the benefits of new technology. Certainly, some of our brothers and sisters need help, sometimes permanently; sometimes temporarily. However, taxation for redistribution doesn’t make the economy stronger; redistribution hurts growth.