Inequality As a Choice

There is a strong tendency in American culture to think of inequality as mostly natural. Once one decides that wildly unequal opportunities and living conditions reflect innate differences in talent and virtue, and that economic growth requires the moral efficiency of punishing the less gifted and industrious with inferior lives, then efforts to fight inequality look like defiance of nature or God (this latter idea, in fact, is an important source of the Christian Right’s embrace of radical individualism in economics, so alien to the spirit of Jesus Christ).

But as Nobel-Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz argues in a wrap-up essay for the cover package of the latest issue of the Washington Monthly, much of American inequality is not natural at all, but is a political choice that not only produces artificial “winners” and “losers,” but a poorer economy and society that would otherwise be the case. The ideologues of American Exceptionalism resist comparisons with countries that have made different choices and secured different results, but they cannot wish them away entirely, because inequality threatens Americans’ own self-concept:

The growing debate about inequality in America today is, above all, about the nature of our society, our vision of who we are, and others’ vision of us. We used to think of ourselves as a middle-class society, where each generation was better off than the last. At the foundation of our democracy was the middle class—the modern-day version of the small, property-owning American farmer whom Thomas Jefferson saw as the backbone of the country. It was understood that the best way to grow was to build out from the middle—rather than trickle down from the top. This commonsense perspective has been verified by studies at the International Monetary Fund, which demonstrate that countries with greater equality perform better—higher growth, more stability. It was one of the main messages of my book The Price of Inequality. Because of our tolerance for inequality, even the quintessential American Dream has been shown to be a myth: America is less of a land of opportunity than even most countries of “old Europe.”

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.