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.
The middle class has long stood as a bulwark of American society. Historically, the rise of a middle class has often been connected to the rise of democratic republicanism. Britain, derided by Napoleon as a nation of shopkeepers, became one of the leading forces for republican democracy in Europe, and the very middle-class ethos of the United States played a significant role in American traditions of self-reliance, economic optimism, and social egalitarianism. The middle class’s financial stability and time outside of employment allow its members to participate thoughtfully in democratic politics and to engage in a variety of civic enterprises. Charities, local governance, and various non-governmental enterprises have historically relied upon the efforts of the middle class. The middle class has played a key role in nurturing the civil society, and, as this class has weakened, the activities of government have moved in to fill the void. In a society where most families can afford to feed, shelter, and raise their children, the demand for government transfers will be far less than in a society where many families are struggling to make ends meet.
Like the middle class, economic opportunity acts as a political stabilizer: If there is hope of getting ahead, individuals are more willing to accept economic differences and are more likely to face economic challenges with a sense of hope. This opportunity is the hope that a rising tide will lift all boats and that — with the right combination of prudence, effort, and talent — an individual can better his or her position in life. Just as we are unlikely to have identical outcomes, our society is also unlikely to have identical opportunities for all Americans: The child of billionaires is likely to have social connections and financial opportunities that a child raised in poverty in the inner city lacks. But even if everyone cannot have the same chance to succeed in the world, we can work to create a society in which as many people as possible have some chance. Expanding access to economic hope would be a great cultural leveler, as it would suggest that dreams of prosperity were not only for a narrow elect but for the broad reach of the body politic.
The neoliberal writer Mickey Kaus has suggested that worries about increasing social inequality drive much of our public debate about increasing economic inequality. We might restate social equality as a kind of social integration — the sense that everyone together participates in a society. The Harvard social scientist Robert Putnam has found declining levels of social trust and increasing levels of public alienation in the American body politic over the past few decades. This fraying of social bonds represents a breakdown in a sense of public integration, as the nation dissolves into archipelagos of resentment and suspicion (with a soupçon of voyeurism).
This breakdown of integration may pose a number of troubles. On a financial level, higher levels of social trust (a key component of what the economist Luigi Zingales calls “civic capital”) often help an economy become more efficient, flexible, and productive. Moreover, as much as individualism is a proud American tradition, this individualism is often complemented by a sense of social egalitarianism: However different they may be, individuals have an equal dignity with one another and have an equal right to the public sphere. This equality might have often been imperfect (witness the segregated South), but this egalitarian sense implicitly drove (and perhaps still drives) much of America’s public culture. Because of their celebration of essential equality, Americans resisted the creation of an entrenched national aristocracy, and this sense of social integration helped foster numerous philanthropic enterprises, from schools to hospitals to various charities. Declining social integration opens up the door for more centrally planned government interventions: When people distrust their neighbors, they might welcome — or at least be indifferent to — the intervention of a government bureaucrat. A free society often depends upon a strong civil society to complement and inform the formal structures of government; social integration is a key component of that civil society.
A free society can survive a growing gap between rich and poor, but this survival becomes much more troubled when it is combined with a hollowed-out middle, narrowed opportunity, and a weakened sense of social consensus. Under that compounded form of inequality, differences can lead to increased social tensions, the corruption of the government, and further internal turmoil. The present moment testifies to these potential dangers. The escalation of the rhetoric of class warfare, for instance, can be seen as a symptom of a breakdown of cohering forces. A society fractured and divided is more likely to turn into warring groups — especially when economic gains are perceived to be increasingly captured by relatively few. Moreover, some forms of government intervention can accentuate this inequality. For example, the financial policy of Too Big to Fail offers the argument that, because of the magnitude of certain financial players’ wealth and power, they should be immune to the risks of failure. This policy at once perverts the principles of the market, inflames social divisions, and allows a few connected players to use the power of the government to insulate themselves from failure (thereby further exacerbating inequality).
How to cope with the rise of certain inequalities may be one of the central political questions of our time. Recently, Ramesh Ponnuru and Yuval Levin sketched out some of the ways in which Republicans could confront the issue of inequality. Other right-leaning writers — including Ross Douthat, Reihan Salam, James Pethokoukis, and Timothy P. Carney — have also drawn attention to policy responses to inequality. The recently launched 2017 Project has coping with the effects of inequality as a central policy plank. This concern with inequality is not confined to the world of think tanks and the punditocracy, either. Elected Republican officials (such as Utah’s Senator Mike Lee) are increasingly considering policies that would address inequality with market-oriented approaches.
This increasing interest in policy solutions has much merit; there is no reason to make “equality” the philosophical or the policy province of the Left. Rather than viewing total homogeneity as the summit of egalitarianism, we might instead think of a pluralist egalitarianism, where a diversity of strengths is celebrated and from which a diversity of outcomes occurs. In complement to this diversity, pluralist egalitarianism would assert the fundamental equality of each and every individual, from the homeless person on the street to a Silicon Valley billionaire. This pluralist fairness would not be one of endless homogeneity but instead a parade of diverse accomplishments. Such pluralist egalitarianism would be sustained by economic vitality, a sense of unifying civic participation, cultural courtesy, a stabilizing middle, and common optimism.
This common citizenship would push back against a tribalistic identity politics that seeks to fracture the body politic into segregated spheres of ethnicity, gender identity, financial position, educational credentialing, and so forth. Instead, it would acknowledge these differences but also argue for a sense of civic unity to complement this heterogeneity. It would counter the rhetoric that divides American society into makers and takers or producers and parasites by asserting the human worth and dignity of each member of the commonwealth.
When Americans worry about inequality, they are also expressing concern about a network of related issues: narrowing avenues of opportunity, stagnant income growth, a fraying sense of social cohesion, and increasing economic and cultural disparities. These issues should concern both Right and Left. They should be of particular interest to the GOP, the original architects of which (such as Abraham Lincoln) advocated for the virtues of civic union and popular prosperity. In criticizing inequality, we do not need to become radical levelers, disparaging every difference in accomplishment and asserting that absolute equivalence should be the goal of our politics. Our society, like every other, will no doubt continue to have gaps in wealth and social status. But we can keep inequality from becoming poisonous by doing what we can to shore up the economic middle, restore economic opportunity for all, defend the interests of the average worker, and promote a sense of civic integration.
This enterprise of pluralist equality would aim to live up to the promise of E Pluribus Unum. The many accomplishments of the individual provide fantastic wealth (and not only of the pecuniary variety), and participation in a unified society often increases these riches and renders them more realizable. The interests of freedom are advanced by having a society capable of sustaining the principles of liberty: one up to the responsibilities of self-government, with a body politic capable of defending itself from attacks from without as well as corruption from within. Defending a balance of interests in this nation — where all are equal but distinct and where no small faction has overwhelming power — would help maintain such a society.
— Fred Bauer is a writer from New England. He blogs at A Certain Enthusiasm, and his work has been featured in numerous publications.