Postmodern Conservative

Inequality

So surely George Will is right that, contrary to Bernie Sanders, the big issue facing the country is not inequality. A free country will have lots of it, and that’s fine as long as most people have enough to live in a dignified way and there’s considerable social mobility. It’s even true, as Tyler Cowen explains, that a “hyper-meritocracy” based on productivity will have more inequality than ever, with members of the cognitive elite (mainly those on very good terms with genius machines or are about herding or providing elite services to the nerds who hug machines) becoming fabulously wealthy, and maybe more people than ever becoming marginally productive. According to Cowen, “average is over,” which means that ordinary middle-class jobs are getting downsized, and people who do said jobs are getting less productive — or do less intellectual labor — because they’re working off scripts devised by others. The qualities of being compliant and being conscientious will have to be more on display than ever for those who hope to avoid sinking, and that fact might privilege men over women.

And Charles Murray also writes about America’s shared and highly mobile middle-class way of life “coming apart.” He mentions, tellingly, the new assortative mating; members of the cognitive elite increasingly herd and reproduce together. They have fewer common intimate experiences with less-fortunate or less-able Americans. They have their own zip codes and schools, and poor girl marries rich boy or poor girl or boy gets to Harvard through an excellent public education are stories that are getting pretty rare. Could it be that not only are the rich getting richer, they’re getting smarter, too? Certainly marriage is getting more stable and child-centered among the top 20 percent, and families are getting more broken and pathological for the bottom 50 percent. The best schools are getting better, most schools are getting wore. All that can’t be good for mobility.

What’s wrong with Sanders is the thought that there’s a government program that could remedy in a big way the kind of inequality specific to the present stage of the development of the division of labor. His schemes are basically counterproductive. That doesn’t mean that pro-growth schemes will necessarily decrease inequality either, or even that we can be certain that most Americans will be better off as a result of their success. It might mean we should think more intentionally about the future of the family.

The difference between Sanders and Hillary Clinton is that Sanders is about class politics and Clinton is about identity politics. Clinton isn’t campaigning against capitalism and has loads of support on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley. Her egalitarianism is much more focused on those who might well have money but feel dissed anyway. In the realm of identity politics, inegalitarian treatment suffered by women, gays, and so forth is rapidly decreasing, even as the demand for recognition gets more insistent. The result is more-intrusive government, but not with policies that touch the economy. Clinton isn’t against capitalism at all, but she’s for the diversity prized by corporations and such, including relatively open borders.There’s a sense in which the cause of Sanders, although much more misguided in some ways, is more noble. If economic inequality is bad in itself, then we should be getting angrier, because it really is increasing. And the class consciousness he wants to form doesn’t pit one form of American ethnic/cultural/religious identity against another. 

Still, what Sanders wants to do would be, in fact, bad for the economy, whereas reform Clinton believes in doesn’t really touch the freedom at the core of a dynamic economy much at all. One reason among many, of course, is that if African Americans have to choose between voting race or class, they usually will vote race. Many black voters, after all, are middle-class. Identity politics in general is hardly a working-class movement. But that doesn’t mean that Sanders has a chance in heck of uniting the workers (or even the laid-off) of America; his support is mainly a kind of intellectual identity politics.

So those Democrats who believe that the election will turn on inequality are fairly misguided. It will turn more on the scarcity of jobs, the perception of imploding safety nets, and the perception that “free trade” must be moderated by “fair trade” that protects American workers the way other countries protect their own (see Trump). It’s unclear that even the identity politics issues, on balance, really benefit the Democrats. Certainly a moderate stand on the social issues (surrounding the family, citizenship, and free exercise of religion) in opposition to the extremism of the identity claims would be to the Republicans’ considerable advantage. The election will not turn on “capitalism,” unless Sanders and/or Trump are the nominees.

Peter Augustine LawlerPeter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...

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