Thanks of course to Thomas Piketty and millions of words in op-eds, blog posts, and social-media screeds, now is apparently the time for the coastal elite to talk about inequality. It’s a big thing — the biggest thing — and unless it’s fixed, it may very well destabilize the developed world.
At the same time, however, millions of Americans really don’t think about inequality — unless someone forces the conversation on them — but they think a lot about liberty. They really, really want government to stop putting its thumb on the scales of life, want to be left alone, and fear a future where the expression of their deepest beliefs may lead to exclusion from the economic and cultural life of their countries and communities. In fact, they think about liberty so much, that the continued heavy hand of government is on the verge of creating real instability.
Miles’s Law states that “where you stand depends on where you sit,” and it’s a commonsense maxim that basically means our lived experience is critical to the formation of our beliefs and priorities. And in the United States, we sit in different places and thus stand for different things. Earlier this month, The Atlantic noted that Democratic congressional districts have a much greater problem with inequality than Republican districts. And if blue Americans experience greater inequality, it stands to reason that inequality is a greater concern for them.
The following charts are key. The first maps inequality by congressional district:
The next shows the most equal and least equal districts:
This imbalance is hardly surprising. After all, Democratic power is concentrated in our largest cities, which often feature exorbitant costs of living and displays of wealth few of my fellow Tennesseans will ever witness, all just a few blocks away from concentrated sections of urban poverty made more startling by proximity and contrast. Here in my section of the South, one doesn’t often encounter immense wealth (there are not too many hedge-fund billionaires out here), the cost of living allows even lower-middle-class families to enjoy much larger homes and greater living space than high-income professionals in New York or San Francisco, and the lifestyle difference in the wealthy and middle class is in degree, not kind. For example, we’re all going to Gatlinburg for long weekends, but our hotel bills and dinner tabs are likely different.
Thus, why should inequality matter to the average activist conservative? After all, our communities don’t experience it as a problem. Even if it theoretically impacts us because, well, Maury County, Tenn., and Manhattan are both in America, and we’re all in this national life together, it pales in importance to the things that can actually change our lives – like direct threats to our religious liberty and free speech, pathetic and dangerous public schools, wholesale corruption and partisanship in federal bureaucracies, mass-scale audits because we adopt children, and the other, innumerable ways government has actually put itself in opposition to a significant subset of its citizens. We want to be left alone, not “helped” by a government that is currently in the process of “helping” us into second-class citizenship.
One set of activists demand equality and seeks more government intervention to force the issue. Another set of activists demand liberty and reject the heavy hand of government in favor of private energy and initiative. We don’t see the same problems and differ on the solutions. We see different problems and demand incompatible solutions. Now that is a recipe for instability.