The movement to reduce income inequality appeals to a very traditional sense of justice known both to Aristotle and the Bible, arising from disproportion between the rich and the poor. Reducing inequality might seem to imply that after we have reached the correct proportion, the difference between rich and poor will remain, only now adjusted to the correction required for justice. Any further reduction at this point would go too far, and would require a movement supporting correction in favor of the rich. But the movement today does not have this moderate character.
What is new (not perhaps to our time but to modern democracy) is its implicit call for equality between rich and poor, as if equality were the correct relationship between them. It does not believe that “you shall have the poor always with you,” but rather that this distinction, previously taken for granted as a permanent fact of human society, can now be done away with, if not in fact or right away, at least in the presumption behind the debate. Poverty calls for a “War on Poverty,” such as that mounted in the Lyndon Johnson presidency. This is not a limited war, but war to the death. Of course the actual measures proposed will not attain this ambitious goal, but the long-term intention assures that its proponents will keep at it. It also releases them from having to say, or even think about, how much inequality they would retain and why.
I propose to consider this novel presumption as to its end, whether the movement goes toward an achievable or sensible goal, and its means, considering what has already been done toward redistribution of rich to poor and what can reasonably be expected, to achieve the end. In two words, I find the end irrational and the means incompetent.
American democracy has always stood for progress in the sense of more or greater democratic equality. Tocqueville spoke of American democracy as inherently revolutionary in this way, and indeed Aristotle says that not only democracy, but every regime desires to produce more of itself. It is not a reasonable desire, because more democracy, for example, is not necessarily, and usually not, the way to make democracy succeed. But it was American progressives, starting early in the twentieth century and continuing today to President Obama, who proclaim democratic progress as “the march of History.” This progress is inevitable and irreversible; it does not depend on human virtue or divine providence but on factors beyond human control, hence not dependent on human discernment.
True, as President Obama said recently, echoing and softening Hegel when events seemed to go against him, “the march of human progress never travels in a straight line.” But the reverses sometimes due to those “on the wrong side of history” are eventually corrected. The crucial point is that progress has stages that, once attained, cannot be reversed. Progress zigs and zags but never turns around and goes backward. So President Obama proclaimed, when introducing his healthcare plan in 2009, that he was not the first President to seek a solution, but he expected to be the last.
Two difficulties stand in the way of more equality. The first is the lack of proof that “all men are created equal.” If we look around, we see many inequalities, some of them socially constructed by custom and prejudice, but others—such as intelligence, size, beauty, and temperament—seem to be as much natural as any aspect of human equality. The intelligence distinguishing men from other animals is shared with all other normal humans, to be sure, but the degrees of that faculty in different men is as impressive as the common sharing of it. The early modern philosophers of the seventeenth century could do no better, when their assertions came down to arguments, than found human equality on equal human presumption: all men, sharing reason, use it, each individually, to claim superior importance each for himself. This is an equality of vanity rather than truth, or a truth about human vanity. The presumption of equality is a supposed fact agreed upon among reasonable persons for a practical political purpose, and it is based not on a finding that all men are truly equal but on a refusal to risk the disagreement that surely arises when natural inequalities are alleged as justification for rule. Only equality can be agreed to be an “undoubted right,” in Locke’s phrase, on which to found government. What is undoubted is a political truth, not a scientific or philosophic one.
Tocqueville supposed that democrats solve this problem by presuming that all citizens are similar, if not equal. In America, the rich can be approached informally by the poor, and if they want to hold office, they must run for it and defer to the claims of the poor in order to win. Democratic “similars” (semblables) are a political construction, not a natural fact, and they thrive as such in an atmosphere of mediocrity that they create and nourish. Democracy prospers despite natural inequalities, but also by tolerating them, thus profiting from them while never showing much deference or gratitude to superior human beings. Democracy’s heroes are called “celebrities,” known for being celebrated by the people rather than being superior to them.
Thus unproven and imposed inconsistently by convention and popular insistence, equality loses much of its power to convince. Given the fragility of the argument in its support, equality seems almost as much open to doubt and challenge as inequality. It is not surprising, then, that progressives cannot be sure how far they wish to carry progress toward equality. How far is enough? It seems that in practice, the answer is, quoting the title of William Voegeli’s recent book, “never enough.” The foresight of progressives is limited because it seems unnecessary when the future is guaranteed by History. Yet it is said nowadays, in contradiction to the confidence of Hegel, the official philosopher of History, that History has no end; it is infinite. “Infinite” is a guarantee that progress will never end, but also that it can never be identified surely as “progress.” Progress needs an end to ensure that its “wrong side” can be known and denounced. Without an end progress is mere lost wandering.
Politically, or in practice, progressives modify the assumption that they will necessarily win by being on the right side of History and instead, resolve to fight elections. For it turns out that equality does not have a secure basis in everyone’s agreement: the inequalities of persons and society remain, however much democratized, and progressives face conservative opponents, who want to protect certain features of tradition, i. e., certain inequalities, and are willing to dispute on their behalf in democratic elections. To answer them, Progressives of the New Deal conceived the (alleged) Harry Hopkins strategy of “tax, spend, elect,” and now continue to offer benefits, like Obamacare, to the democratic electorate as “entitlements.” These benefits will remain because their beneficiaries will defend them. Their irreversibility, politically achieved, stands in for the historical irreversibility of progress that is merely assumed in progressive theory. With this strategy, progressives in practice shift the definition of democracy from attaining equality to governing by the majority will of a popular electorate.
If democracy is defined as equality that needs to be achieved and therefore does not exist, then true democracy is way off in a future that we have seen to be indefinite, to say the least. Democracy is something that has to be imagined.
But if one appeals to the electorate with progressive spending programs, one assumes that democracy is found in the decision of the majority, hence that democracy already exists. This is a more satisfactory situation than an arbitrary, shadowy image in the future, but it has a major drawback. It means that democracy includes those conservatives who oppose further movement toward equality, and who may possibly win elections now and again. Thus democracy in practice comes to include the opponents of more democracy, formerly dismissed as founts of prejudice and superstition on the wrong side of History, but now necessarily accepted as legitimate voters. Progressives must “fight” them but also live with them as equals. The defenders of inequality achieve an equal status with defenders of equality.
Politically, then, democratic equality comes to recognize inequalities. The main inequality, the one that sums up all human inequalities, is that between the few and the many. That distinction has been variously described in political philosophy, but it always seems to be latent, and to pop up occasionally, even in the most democratic thinkers. These thinkers are known and regard themselves today as “public intellectuals,” a status that identifies a class of unequals in democracy who, with a zeal that disguises their embarrassment even from themselves, offer their unequal talents of persuasion to the task of defeating the opponents of equality. They dispute with the conservative intellectuals whom they join as members of a common class of talkers more articulate than ordinary people.
The lesson so far, learned from the actual practice of theorists of equality, is that income inequality co-exists with other forms of inequality that are just as unequal and undemocratic as income or wealth. In a liberal society, the few remain as unequal and as superior in different ways, for human beings are naturally diverse, and their diversity consists in being or having more or less of some kind or feature, thus unequal. Liberal democracy does not do away with the classical distinction between the few and the many, but in the first place disguises it, as we have seen, in conventional similarity enabling unequals to treat one another equally, or with a semblance of equality like a rich person grinning at a poor person, perhaps kissing her baby when seeking her vote.
Besides this semblance, which is often quite effectual, liberal democracy maintains a spirit of competition among the few that prevents them from acting like a class in a common interest uniting the few. “The few are always the ministers of the few,” said Machiavelli, but he also noticed that it is in the nature of the few to want to rise, each of them, to the exalted status of uno solo, alone on top by himself. The more moderate principle of The Federalist is “let ambition counteract ambition,” a formula that explains much of the energy of American government as originally conceived. An example of its working at present may be found in the often decried abuse of campaign finance made possible by income inequality. Rich donors are thought to corrupt American elections and the government they produce by financing the campaigns of politicians who then become indebted to this few. The politicians pay their debt to the donors either by getting benefits for them, a directly corrupt quid pro quo, or indirectly by offering them influence over policies they espouse. Recently, Donald Trump, claiming to be very rich and running for office on his own money, has been boasting that only he stands independent and ready to act for the people. In contrast to his rivals who must kowtow to their donors, he is uninfluenced by the rich.
In response to this sally, one may point out first that rich donors have for some time been available to both parties, to the people’s party as well as to the supposed party of the rich, the Republicans. From the standpoint of progressives, income inequality can be combined with virtue when it finances the virtuous cause of equality. A rich donor can be taxed, of course, under the assumption that his virtue is not as great as the government’s need for revenue, nor in the matter of redistribution, as dependable. His conscience might forsake him in a difficult year. Since the 1984 election campaign, when Walter Mondale promised higher taxes for all in his election campaign and suffered a devastating loss, the Democrats have confined their promises for tax increase to the rich, perhaps even the very rich in the top 1%. Under this difficult limitation they are obliged to keep the very rich very rich, so that they can serve as cash cows to pay for the benefits for the poor.
Besides the embarrassing fact that the rich do not stick to their class interest, there is a further consideration. Income inequality is not the only inequality that can affect who governs and in what kind of society. It frequently happens that the very rich are not sufficiently articulate or impressive in public to get themselves elected to office where they can do what they wish. At the same time, those who have impressive debating skills and polished manners, together with greater political savvy than the very rich, often do not happen to have the money they need to exploit their skills and engage their virtue. Mr. Trump assumes that in the first case, the very rich will endow, in effect hire, members of the class of politicians to represent their views in the offices that the very rich cannot gain on their own.
No doubt this avenue of influence does exist. But it is easy to imagine that the reverse can also occur, and we see this in the Republican race for the presidential candidacy today. From the standpoint of the candidates, their skills can gain them the money they need from the very rich, who lack those skills. It is an instance of the principal-agent problem: Who is which? Is the politician the agent of the donor, or the donor the agent of the politician? Mr. Trump may think that his rivals, who lack money, are despicable pawns of the very rich, but they could reply that he is the sort of fool (identified by Machiavelli) who spends his own money instead of using other people’s money to get what he wants. The lesson might seem to be Machiavelli’s: “arms”—understood in the wide sense of means to your end—will get you money, but money won’t get you arms. The very rich will have to depend on “the few” in order to rule. The few are divided among themselves, and campaign finance does not necessarily, or by itself, win your campaign. And in this case, both the donors and the politicians—indeed, the few as a heterogeneous whole—are together the agent of the true principal, which is the democratic electorate.
The division between the rich and the poor is complicated by the middle class between them. To consider income inequality one must take account of the middle class, and all Americans except for the rich think they belong to the middle class. To belong in the middle is to see that one is above those beneath and beneath those above; it is to feel pinched between the fear of being bullied by the rich and the fear of being exploited by or for the sake of the poor. In order to gain a majority of the electorate Democrats want to make an alliance between the middle class and the poor, and so to persuade the middle class to adopt the attitude of the poor against the rich, their common enemy.
Republicans want to make the other alliance between the middle class and the rich, so that the middle class fears being exploited by the poor as do the rich; here the poor are the common enemy. Republicans want a means test so as to limit the benefits of the Welfare State to the “truly needy,” a designation that exudes condescension combined with suspicion. If you are not truly needy, vote Republican. Democrats do not want a means test because it divides the poor from the middle class and aligns the middle class with the rich. All the needy are truly needy: so vote Democrat. Democrats want you to think that you are poor, Republicans, that you are rich. To be poor is to think you are not rich but want to be; to be rich is to be uncomfortable. So America is a restless country, and it is hard to see how transforming America into a classless society of income equality, with everyone both rich and poor, would make it happy.
The outlook for income equality does not improve if we turn from the end as conceived to the means that have actually been employed by progressives in the New Deal and the Great Society. Three great defects have appeared from their attempts to equalize incomes, redistributing from rich to poor and also within the middle class from taxpayer to recipient. First, the cost; second, the inefficiency of delivery; third, the attitude of empty openness in globalism. These three defects converge in the paradox that a movement designed to further the common good, and even to recreate the common good, precisely loses sight of the common good.
The cost of redistribution is too great, whatever it amounts to, because it is more than can be afforded. We see this now in our massive debt, which is fed by continuing deficits in federal and state budgets. Since the New Deal, conservatives have pointed out that while progressives won elections with programs of redistributions, people would inevitably vote for spending beyond what they would vote to pay for in taxes. Democrats responded to the criticism in several ways: by first establishing the social security program as insurance, not welfare, so that it pays for itself; by embracing the economics of John Maynard Keynes and his successors, according to which government spending is good and deficits not so bad; by beginning to use debt in order to finance current payments for benefits rather than reserving it for investment; by profiting from inflation that reduces the cost of repaying the debt; and recently, by “quantitative easing” in which the Federal Reserve keeps interest payments on the debt very low.
These measures are, however, counteracted by making welfare benefits into “entitlements,” i. e. non-discretionary expenses, in order to emphasize that the progress they represent will not be reversed because their payment is guaranteed and not subject to the constraints of the budget. Entitlements are paid directly by the federal government (usually), and they belong to individuals who receive them mostly without any obligation on their part to deserve them (except for the work requirement now attached to welfare). They are due regardless of the country’s condition or ability to pay, which means without reference to the common good as opposed to the good of entitled individuals. Under the system of entitlements, the country is like a family where the common purse has to pay for grandpa’s guaranteed right to eat steak every night before it feeds the rest of the family.
The Democrats were right to think that entitlements are, if not irreversible, hard to stop or even tinker with. They are popular, and to defend them against hard-hearted opponents will still win elections. But the debt continues to rise, and its potential cost increases. The expedients listed above cannot postpone a reckoning of the debt indefinitely, as Democrats presume. As to taxes that might reduce the debt, Democrats have stopped proposing increases, as noted above, in response to Republican electoral gains from refusing increases and instead securing decreases. One could call the Republicans irresponsible for not themselves serving as “tax collector for the welfare state,” as one of them put it—if one could be assured that new taxes went to pay the debt rather than to finance new programs wanted by the Democrats. Democrats live their lives for the sake of proposing new government programs; this is their characteristic activity and they know none other.
Some sort of crisis is waiting for us from which a major departure from the system of entitlements will be required. Greece provides a straw in the wind. Greece is very different from the United States, and much weaker, but it is an example of a liberal democracy where the voters have had to suffer heavy losses from having sustained too much spending for too long. Despite their democratic will, they have been obliged to face the reality of having spent too much. That they have done so unrepentantly by electing a radical socialist party to manage the change merely emphasizes the point. Their problem, fundamentally, is not the euro or German taxpayers or even “the market,” but their own redistributionist profligacy. The Greeks have been, like us, easy to mislead.
Second, and more important, the delivery system of redistribution is maddeningly inefficient. A recent book by Yale law professor and moderate Democrat Peter Schuck, Why Government Fails So Often, provides the evidence for this seemingly extreme judgment. Government benefits are delivered through bureaucracy, once defined by the great Max Weber as providing the means and illustrating the character of modern legal-rational authority, distinct from the traditional personal loyalties of feudalism. But over time, what happens is that the “legal” overcomes the “rational.” Precisely by trying to be so rational, and by making so many reasonable distinctions, administrative law becomes more and more remote from reasons ordinary people can understand.
The tax code is the most obvious example of the failure of bureaucratic reason. Rational rules lose the simplicity they may have had in their original formulation, such as that the rich should pay more. Complexity follows, requiring thousands of pages of regulations and giving rise to an army of accountants and tax lawyers. The law needs to be applied in bureaucratic regulations that seek to be specific but cannot fail to be ambiguous, that want to be simple and end up as complex, that try to be fair and always seem unfair. The result is not gratitude in the people to their government for providing benefits. As Professor Schuck says, in a free society “the penetration of law into every corner of human life… is bound to be a source of deep resentment.”
Worse than resentment is the “tangle of pathologies,” to quote Daniel Patrick Moynihan, which arises from the perverse incentives of entitlements. Entitlements for individuals dislodge them from their families, an effect which has proved to yield fatherless families, teenage pregnancy, and criminal behavior. Then, to top off resentment and immorality, we are faced with the egregious behavior of the public employee unions, who secure better benefits for themselves, in wages and pensions, than those they deliver to others as civil servants. They illustrate both the communal aspiration and the effectual me-first spirit of progressive entitlements.
The third defect of progressivism is its attitude of weakness in foreign affairs, another possible source of coming crisis. The galloping egalitarianism that aims at redistribution of income to an unspecifiable degree has an effect on one’s patriotism. When there is no justice within societies save in equality, there can be none among them. The refusal to distinguish what is outstanding in virtue and desert leads to the idea of relativism that secures equality by treating everyone and every activity as equal. Relativism as an idea leaves the realm of philosophy and enters into society as permissiveness in conduct. This consequence appears in foreign as well as domestic affairs, and the two nourish one another. The demand for income equality at home, directed at rich Americans, feeds the zealous desire to apologize for rich America abroad.
Progressives are both too naïve and too sophisticated to fight their enemies abroad, too naïve because they sincerely believe that they have no enemies; too sophisticated because, through their profound reflection on the nature of human things, they are sure that they have History on their side and that Peace is on the horizon. Yet they know they have enemies at home, namely the conservatives who defend unjust privileges and promote the prejudice and superstition on which privileges depend. Progressives reserve their deepest dislike for their fellow countrymen who have the shameless propensity to think too well of their country. Foreign reactionaries get a pass for not being American and not infrequently receive tolerant favor when they oppose America. Nothing is so wrong with wanting to reduce inequality in America as the behavior of those who want to do nothing else.
In this essay, I have discussed the general defects of redistribution but not the particular remedies for income inequality, which have failed to produce results. The problem seems to have worsened under a Democratic administration whose policies benefited the stock market rather than employment. Yet income inequality, a source of unattractive envy, matters much less than improving the lot, which means the employment, of the poor. Economies should be judged more by what they do for the poor than by how well they diminish the receipts of the rich. Aristotle distinguishes between distributive justice that benefits the recipient and punitive justice that actually seems to harm him, but in practice distributive justice takes away as well as gives; it is redistributive. The liberals who favor it stop being permissive liberals, to show that here they can bite. In an era of polarized parties, liberals now are showing more bite. What of conservatives?
Conservatives are showing less hesitation than they used to do. The two parties are not just extremes, but opposed extremes. What gives conservatives unwonted confidence? With the election of Richard Nixon, we learned that a Republican could win under the Great Society, and with Ronald Reagan, that a conservative could win. Today the liberal Republican is extinct, and the moderate Republican is still a conservative. Conservatives sense that the welfare state fashioned by progressives is exhausted; it has no new programs to excite voters, or to distract their resentment under existing programs, and it is “running out of other people’s money to give away.” Conservatives feel that their criticisms of liberal progress in the economy have been vindicated, and that their cultural views, despite a symbolic loss on same-sex marriage, can hold their own. They are unwilling to compromise, though they may be forced to do so.
Liberals have responded to conservative advances not by prudent retreat toward the center but by doubling down on their progressivism so as to follow such leaders as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. To exaggerate, each party would rather crush the other party than win an election. But we still have two parties, neither of which is going away. Democrats are saddled with a losing cause, but they are generally more skillful politicians than Republicans; as the people’s party, they are on the side of justice and therefore can afford, morally, to be less scrupulous. Just as a socialist is now managing the debacle in Greece, Democrats may well preside over the crisis their policies have brought about. After all, the Democratic Party is older than its progressivism, and might easily survive it. Conservatives will not necessarily win because they have been right. They have been right, but they must face the fact that their opponent, the people’s party, always has an advantage in democracy. There is material for compromise in the unreality of progressive “progress” and in the reality of democracy.
I conclude with this remark: a political science that wants to understand our politics must decide which party has more truth in its principles and policies. After deciding that, it can turn to the course of events to see what History, or chance, will decree.