The Magazine

About Inequality

Nov 14, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 09 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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Over the last few weeks the ground of American politics has shifted to the left. The process began when President Obama’s tour to promote his jobs bill improved his standing in some polls and forced Republicans to play defense. Next came Occupy Wall Street, which gave the media an excuse to put questions of “social justice” at the top of their agenda. The Congressional Budget Office then released a report highlighting increased income inequality and seeming to prove Occupy Wall Street’s claim that the top 1 percent of Americans might as well live in a different country. Toss in a couple glimmers of economic hope—an improved third-quarter GDP number, a slightly falling unemployment rate—and the recipe for the left-liberal revival was set.

Photo of a Wall Street protestor


The right? Caught off guard. Too quick to dismiss the occupiers, too convinced that the bad economy will doom Obama’s reelection, too distracted by the silliness of the Republican primary, too beholden to the egalitarian assumptions of the left, Republicans and conservatives have not responded coherently to the arguments put forward by their newly invigorated opponents. Only Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, in a major speech at the Heritage Foundation on October 26, sounded the alarm: “Sowing social unrest and class resentment makes America weaker, not stronger,” he said. “Pitting one group against another only distracts us from the true sources of inequity in this country—corporate welfare that enriches the powerful, and empty promises that betray the powerless.”

Ryan is just one man. The rebuttal to Obama, Occupy Wall Street, and other eminent egalitarians cannot be left to him alone. How to respond when Paul Krugman writes in the New York Times that income inequality puts “the whole nature of our society” at risk? Who will challenge George Packer’s self-contradiction when he writes in Foreign Affairs, “By contemporary standards, life in 1978 was inconvenient, constrained, and ugly. .  .  . But from where we stand in 2011, [it looks] pretty good” because the distribution of income was more equal then than it is today? Who will confront the left on the nature of equality?

What too many have done is accept the premise that the purpose of government is to lessen inequalities of goods. To dispute the studies on income inequality is not to deny the presupposition on which those studies rest. To argue that “income inequality is a myth” is to imply that, if income inequality were not a myth, there would be a problem. As soon as one runs to social science’s vast library of Babel, where a study can be found to prove practically anything, one is conceding valuable ground.

Another group of conservatives has no problem with such concessions. They grant that the social science is right and that American society should be more egalitarian. They differ with the liberals only in the kind of measures they would have government take to address inequality. Where the liberals would increase taxes to fund universal health care and pensions and welfare, the conservatives would increase only some taxes, means-test entitlements, spend more money on education, and try to arrest through government action the erosion of the two-parent family. As soon as they make these proposals, however, they expose themselves to the argument that such policies are not enough. And if that is the case, and if a more equal society is a laudable goal, these “small-government egalitarians” have backed themselves into one day accepting the liberals’ means to achieve the liberals’ ends.

The way out is to reject the assumption that government’s purpose is to redress inequalities of income. Inequalities of condition are a fact of life. Some people will always be poorer than others. So too, human altruism will always seek to alleviate the suffering of the destitute. There is a place for reasonable and prudent actions to improve well-being. But that does not mean the entire structure of our polity should be designed to achieve an egalitarian ideal. Such a goal is fantastic, utopian even, and one would think that the trillions of dollars the United States has spent in vain over the last 50 years to promote “equality as a fact and equality as a result” would give the egalitarians pause.

That it has not provides a clue as to why the passion for equality is so strong. This debate really has nothing to do with the facts on the ground, nor is it restricted to any particular place or time. “The simple truth is that the professional classes of our modern bureaucratized societies are engaged in a class struggle with the business community for status and power. Inevitably, this class struggle is conducted under the banner of ‘equality.’ ” That is Irving Kristol, writing in 1973—back in George Packer’s lost paradise. The leveling spirit, in other words, is coeval with the inequalities of condition that are part of the human experience. Suppose we could go back to the income distribution of 1978. Does anyone think for a second that the 18-year-old George Packer wouldn’t be caterwauling for even more “equality”?

When Paul Krugman writes that “extreme concentration of income is incompatible with real democracy,” he has a point. It was Aristotle who observed that inequality and democracy were volatile in combination, because the poor multitude would try to redistribute the wealth of the rich few. That is why, in his view, democracies were prone to collapsing into either anarchy or tyranny. Aristotle’s answer to this problem was the mixed regime, which combined elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy and thus promoted stability.

The Founders of this nation also understood the problematic relation between democracy and inequality. Their solution was a large constitutional republic whose “first object of government” was the protection of the “diversity in faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate.” The separation of enumerated powers, federalism, and a strong dose of virtue in the citizenry and their representatives would be the guarantors of the natural rights of mankind.

We have strayed so far from this view that our energies are no longer directed to the equal protection of rights but the equal provision of things. We have strayed so far that before embarking on quests to reengineer America neither the left nor the right even thinks to pose the question of Federalist 6: “Have we not already seen enough of the fallacy and extravagance of those idle theories which have amused us with promises of an exemption from the imperfections, the weaknesses, and the evils incident to society in every shape? Is it not time to awake from the deceitful dream of a golden age and to adopt as a practical maxim for the direction of our political conduct that we, as well as the other inhabitants of the globe, are yet remote from the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue?”

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