Why Americans care about economic inequality – and why conservatives should too

Last week The Economist featured an excellent series of articles on the growth of inequality in the world economy. The gap between rich and poor countries has been shrinking, the magazine pointed out, but the gap between the rich and the poor within countries has been growing. The Economist notes that liberals seem to lack an imagination when it comes to promoting economic equality, consistently falling back on redistributive programs that may alter economic outcomes to a certain extent but that do little to alter the forces that cause inequality in the first place. Conservatives, on the other hand, are not sure that economic inequality is even a problem.

That inequality is growing in America is less and less disputed. In his provocative book Coming Apart the libertarian sociologist Charles Murray demonstrated that not only is economic inequality increasing, but that the gap between rich and poor is increasingly associated with gaps in education, religious practice, marriage, and various other cultural and moral indicators. One of Murray’s controversial claims is that the elites – the rich, educated, religious, and moral – need to start preaching what they practice – to the poor.

But is inequality really a problem? There are certainly conservatives out there – many of them Christians – who would reject the entire premise that government should be concerned about economic outcomes. These conservatives are not simply concerned that efforts to achieve economic equality necessarily lead to socialism and the redistribution of wealth. Rather, they question whether the value of economic equality is consistent with something they value more: liberty. In addition, there is a sneaking suspicion that what really drives economic egalitarianism is laziness, envy, or some combination of both.

On the other hand, other political philosophers and economists – and many of these are Christians as well – argue that political equality, to which virtually all Americans are committed as a matter of course, depends on a certain degree of economic equality. This insight goes back at least to Aristotle, who noted that only those with sufficient wealth and leisure should be allowed to participate in the political affairs of the city. Citizenship takes a great deal of time and effort, and those whose focus is dominated by their labor and need for provision cannot devote a sufficient amount of time or energy to the education, thoughtfulness, and cultural activity that political involvement requires.

While for Aristotle – and for many since him – this meant that only the elites should be granted citizenship, modern liberal theorists, including those who shaped the founding of the United States, became committed to political equality for all. That revolutionary America was one of the most egalitarian societies in the history of the world made this commitment eminently plausible. In fact, the New England based political party that was influenced by the aristocratic ideals of the Puritans, the Federalists, quickly discovered that opposition to this democratic-republican commitment was political suicide. The collapse of the Federalist party in the early 19th Century taught all would-be politicians that political equality is a value Americans will not give up. Jacksonian democracy came to define both the Democratic and Republican parties of the later 19th Century.

In the late 19th Century, as the industrial revolution helped spawn the massive concentration of wealth and economic power of the gilded age, politics became increasingly corrupt, dominated by the interests of the powerful. William Jennings Bryan’s progressive political campaigns reflected the widespread sense of many Americans that the ordinary man could claim little to nothing in the way of meaningful participation in the political process. Government policies, Bryan and others charged, were geared towards the interests of the rich, and were making it impossible for the typical American to keep his head above the water, let alone get ahead.

Bryan failed in his quest for the presidency three times, but in the later progressive administrations of the Dutch Reformed President Theodore Roosevelt (Republican) and the Presbyterian President Woodrow Wilson (Democrat) many of these basic concerns were channeled into a partially successful transformation of the political and governmental process. The country shifted its focus to small government and the creation of wealth in the 1920s, but the Great Depression brought a second wave of democratic populism, one that in this case succeeded in establishing the beginnings of the American welfare state through Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal.

One of the basic tenants that has guided liberal democratic theory since the emergence of progressivism in American politics is that the political equality on which the democratic process depends must be nurtured or at least protected by the government. Picking up on the Aristotelian insight, liberal theorists argue, if political participation requires a certain level of wealth and education, then government should seek to promote a basic level of equality in these areas in order to protect the more basic value of political equality. Most Americans find this idea sufficiently persuasive that they have come broadly to support public education, minimal welfare for the poor, and various insurance and pension programs like Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare.

What I think some conservatives (and liberals) fail to appreciate is that when Ronald Reagan mounted an effective challenge to the welfare state model of democratic liberalism in the 1970s, one that has transformed the conversation of American politics to this day, he did so not by opposing the instinctive American belief in political and economic equality, but by expressing the sense that the welfare state was actually destroying that equality. Government had become so big, and so intrusive, he argued, that it was the ordinary man, the man who had supported Roosevelt’s New Deal that was being thrown under the bus. Reagan argued that for the sake of political equality and equal economic opportunity government had to be reduced, and power returned to the American people. That’s why his political program was so persuasive.

Conservatives who appreciate this recognize that recent trends towards inequality are not a matter of concern simply to liberal elites and left wing activists, nor are they simply playing on the resentment of racial and economic minorities. As the power of big money continues to warp legislative priorities in Washington D.C., more and more Americans will find reform necessary in order to protect meaningful democratic participation. As the middle class continues to fall behind (remember Romney’s repeated insistence that it is the middle class that Obama has crushed), Americans will expect – and eventually demand – that something change. Economic and political resentment often leads to volatile politics and bad policy – as FDR realized during the Great Depression. For that reason alone we would do well to take rising inequality seriously, finding good solutions, before people turn to alternatives that are far worse.

The typical liberal answer, as The Economist notes, has been to promote higher taxation on the rich and redistribution to the poor. The typical conservative response has often simply been to reject such ‘socialist’ schemes. What few are taking seriously is what Reagan took seriously – the way in which the government actually promotes inequality, intentionally or not. To put it another way, the conversation is almost entirely about how (or whether) to adjust economic outcomes; it needs to be about how to address what is causing inequality in the first place.

This is simply part 1 of my discussion of economic equality. In tomorrow’s post I hope to work through some of the ways in which government policy promotes inequality.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on October 16, 2012, in Democratic Party, Economy, Equality, Republican Party, Welfare State and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Why Americans care about economic inequality – and why conservatives should too.

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