President Obama has made much of income inequality in his presidency. His attention to this issue is understandable (if a little ironic) because, by many measures, income inequality has grown during his administration. Recently, a growing number of Republicans and conservatives have also come to focus on inequalities in American society. Growing inequality should concern those interested in limited government, republican liberty, and economic growth. Within some limits, inequality is an unavoidable and perhaps even beneficial force. On this earth, the only perfectly equal place would be a totalitarian nightmare (and history has numerous examples of revolutionary regimes supposedly founded upon total equality that degenerate into the most unequal of dictatorships). The rewards accruing to economic success can encourage individuals to work harder and to innovate. Inequality can often result from the enjoyment of liberty, but excesses of inequality can threaten that very freedom by undermining the conditions that defend and sustain republican liberty.
The president’s focus on income inequality may suffer from a kind of conceptual myopia, however. Equality is not simply a matter of dollars and cents, nor can we reduce the full spectrum of equality (or the lack thereof) to the differential between the wages of the economic top and those of the economic bottom. As some on the right consider responding to the challenges of inequality, they should realize that the opposite of radical inequality need not only be the dystopia imagined by Kurt Vonnegut in “Harrison Bergeron,” where a totalitarian government imposes burdens upon each individual in order to compensate for his or her particular strengths (so that weights are placed on the strong or masks on the attractive). A case can be made for an egalitarianism that emphasizes dynamicism, opportunity, and pluralism — that is, a kind of equality that also acknowledges difference.
One of the central (and persistent) themes of American public life has been the reconciliation of diversity into a broader, unified republic. Attempting to balance the interests of diverse states along with the claims of a national union, the political doctrine of federalism responds to the challenge of that reconciliation. The federal Constitution (along with the various state constitutions) seeks to maintain individual autonomy within a republic of laws that apply to all through the combination of legislative energies and the recognition of rights.
This enterprise of reconciliation also casts light on the idea of equality in American society. Much of the American social experiment can be understood as an exploration of the concept of equal but not identical, a notion that balances between the assertion of individual distinction and a sense of similarity across all distinctions. We might rephrase “equal but not identical” as the belief in some essential legal, civic, and natural equality in the face of various particular inequalities. There are countless inequalities in American society: Some pay more in taxes, some reap greater economic benefits from the current social order than others, some receive certain subsidies, some benefit from a strong family structure, some resent their parents’ influences, and so on and so forth. But, in complement to those inequalities, there remain certain common and equalizing tendencies: Each citizen receives one vote, or the principle that each person should have equal access to the legal system (and therefore the protection of his or her rights), for example.
This equality might not be absolutely total. Certain interests, for instance, might be more able to influence the process of a given court more than other interests. The limits of this equality do not, however, vitiate its importance for maintaining the civil compact. The rule of law is one of the central equalizing tendencies of society. Take that away, and civil society becomes a jungle, so some kind of equality seems essential for founding civil life. What exactly should be the bounds of that equality remains in a continued state of cultural conversation. The poll tax and the broader economic narrowing of the electorate was a significant component of early U.S. history, but, by the 20th century, such a system of economic barriers to voting was widely viewed as an affront to the nation’s democratic tradition of equality. This difficulty of defining with perfect exactness what constitutes the equalizing tendencies of society does not negate the importance of this equality, either; many of the central topics of our personal and political lives resist reductive definitions.
When Americans worry about inequality, their concerns often go beyond a gap between wealthy and poor Americans; they also often fret about damaged prospects for the middle class, fraught economic opportunity, and a disintegrating sense of social cohesion. These forces are often key components to help stabilize and, in a way, equalize American society.