Against the Meritocratic Theory of Inequality

In his latest New York Times column, Paul Krugman declares Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century “the most important economics book of the year — and maybe of the decade.” So it’s a good time to read–or re-read–Kathleen Geier’s review of Picketty’s book in the March/April/May issue of the Washington Monthly.

Geier and Krugman agree that one of Picketty’s most important findings is that inherited wealth is rapidly re-assuming its traditional role as the preeminent source of economic power. And Krugman notes this trend is being reflected in conservative economic policy in this country:

[T]he great tax-cut push of the Bush years was mainly about reducing taxes on unearned income. And when Republicans retook one house of Congress, they promptly came up with a plan — Representative Paul Ryan’s “road map” — calling for the elimination of taxes on interest, dividends, capital gains and estates. Under this plan, someone living solely off inherited wealth would have owed no federal taxes at all.

After years of a bipartisan focus on the appropriate range of tax rates on earned income, this broader focus on public policy treatment of all sources of income–and with it a conservative ideology that to an extraordinary extent values capital over labor as a contributor to economic growth–is truly essential. Conservatives have benefited for decades from the claim that they are the champions of a meritocratic view of economic incentives providing the most efficient–and most morally defensible–distribution of resources. But this position should become increasingly untenable when “merit” is associated with birth privilege, “talent” with power, and “hard work” with success as its own justification.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.