The Magazine

About Inequality

Nov 14, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 09 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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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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