Experiential / Reality-based Learning / February 11, 2015

Economic Inequality Debate Explores Role of Individuals in Society

Economic Inequality Debate Explores Role of Individuals in Society

We all are members of communities, citizens of nations and participants in a global economic and cultural conversation. As members of these complex and overlapping systems, how do we define our rights as individuals and our responsibilities to society? How we answer these questions is likely fundamental to our outlook on economic inequality and how it should be addressed today. 

In a debate hosted by the Snider Center for Enterprise and Markets at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business, Yaron Brook, President and Executive Director of The Ayn Rand Institute, and Paul Vaaler, the Mooty Chair in Law and Economics at the University of Minnesota, represented diverse views on the intersection of individual rights and societal responsibilities. 

For Brook, inequality is the outcome of an individual’s talents, efforts and opportunities. “What we want is a society that is free,” he said in an interview before the event. “And free means that we can’t penalize one group to somehow equalize it for another group.” 

Vaaler said that, fundamentally, lessening inequality benefits all members of a society. “I’m not for one size fits all,” he said. “I’m for choice by a community. That involves setting standards that matter for us because of our shared citizenship.” 

Over the course of an hour, Brook and Vaaler discussed the application of these fundamental views to particular issues in the news, including using taxes to lessen economic inequality, capping CEO pay, and the relationship between inequality and economic growth (such as measured by GDP). Both Brook and Vaaler pointed to the importance of competition and healthy markets for fostering innovation and enterprise. 

About 60 Smith School faculty and working professionals in the school’s Executive MBA program attended the debate, moderated by Snider Center Director Rajshree Agarwal, the Rudolph P. Lamone Chair and Professor in Entrepreneurship at the Smith School. 

At the beginning and end of the debate, participants were polled on their views. Initially many participants felt that inequality in outcomes should be of primary concern to business and society; however, after the debate, the group was more evenly split.


During the debate, both speakers noted the key role that lifelong education plays in providing access to economic opportunities (although they diverged in their views on the relationship between government and private enterprise in providing education). “Perhaps some people were influenced by the argument that investment in education and human capital should be a primary concern,” Agarwal said. “Another discussion that could have impacted views was the debate over data examining, on a global scale, the relationship between economic progress and lower inequality.” 

Interested in learning more? Explore interviews with the speakers and watch the debate, which is divided up into four 15-minute segments based on the following topics: 

  1. The increasing inequality in outcomes within and across nations should be of primary concern to business and society today | Video 
  2. Taxes (existing and new) should be used to reduce inequality of outcomes | Video
  3. CEO pay should be capped at some percentage of the lowest paid employee in the firm | Video 
  4. Economic progress and growth depend on reducing inequality of outcomes | Video

If you would like to use multimedia from the event for educational purposes, contact the Snider Center.

About the Snider Center Debates on Enterprise and Markets
The Snider Center Debates are an arena where invited experts engage in reasoned, rational, and respectful discussions that examine all sides of an issue.  Fostering discourse and discussion on big topic issues, the debates illuminate the roles of individuals, business, and social institutions in enterprise and markets and enhance the art of critically analyzing and evaluating information. 

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About the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business

The Robert H. Smith School of Business is an internationally recognized leader in management education and research. One of 12 colleges and schools at the University of Maryland, College Park, the Smith School offers undergraduate, full-time and flex MBA, executive MBA, online MBA, business master’s, PhD and executive education programs, as well as outreach services to the corporate community. The school offers its degree, custom and certification programs in learning locations in North America and Asia.

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