This weekend I attended a fascinating event at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business on the subject of economic inequality. Prof. Rajshree Agarwal put together a program that included a series of short debates by her Executive MBA students, followed by a one-on-one debate on the same questions between University of Minnesota Prof. Paul Vaaler and Ayn Rand Institute Executive Director Yaron Brook.
Participants argued for and against propositions such as “Taxes (existing and new) should be used to reduce inequality of outcomes” and “CEO pays should be capped at some percentage of the lowest paid employee in the firm.” The MBA students were assigned positions and debated based on recent readings, while Vaaler and Brook argued their own personal convictions on the meaning of economic inequality and the role of both business and government in responding to it.
Prof. Vaaler emphasized the role of participatory democracy in setting societal norms for questions like the just distribution of wealth, while Brook dismissed concerns about inequality per se, arguing that economic rewards should flow to whomever has earned them, regardless of the resulting distribution. The MBA students followed up with a highly engaged series of questions for both speakers.
Finally, the students were polled on a series of four questions having to do with inequality and had their responses contrasted with the answers they gave before the debate began. On 3 out of 4 questions, the students moved closer to Brooks’ position—that either inequality is not an issue of paramount concern in the first place, or that public policy measures like capping CEO pay were not well advised.
While the specific result was encouraging from a free market point of view, the fact that business school students were being challenged on these issues at all is especially important. Business schools do an excellent job training future business leaders in areas like program management and creative problem solving, but don’t necessarily focus on questions of politics and morality that are, nevertheless, also vital to operating a business in a heavily-regulated, mixed economy. Prof. Agarwal, who leads the newly launched Snider Center for Enterprise and Markets at the University of Maryland, is doing an excellent job of challenging her students on these issues. I have no doubt that tomorrow’s shareholders will thank her when her students become CEOs themselves.