Why wealth inequality is not unjust, but power inequality is

In a previous post, I explained that one of the underlying sources of disagreement about basic economic policy is that first world economies are both theoretically and practically complex, and thus may be quite difficult to reconcile with one’s particular theory of justice—e.g., a theory that seeks to ensure some baseline fairness in the distribution of economic output (“substantive fairness”),or a theory that seeks simply to ensure some baseline fairness in the process of economic transactions (“procedural fairness”). Because tracing economic activity to tangible value is so difficult, it is also difficult to agree on the nature of our economic problems and how they can or should be fixed. Given the vastly different models of evaluating economic fairness, is there any way conservatives and liberals can get on the same page when talking about so-called entitlements like social security, health care, unemployment, welfare, et al.?

In this post, I attempt to explain the rationale and preconditions under a conservative political theory for the state’s provision of certain need-based economic concessions.  I then attempt to explain that while wealth inequality is rarely “unjust,” power inequality breeds injustice to the extent it compromises a political system’s guarantee of procedural fairness in economic transactions, and that if procedural fairness cannot be ensured, wealth inequality can no longer be deemed to be presumptively fair.

Entitlements Depend Upon the Existence of Political Society, and Thus Are Not Founded in Natural Rights Theory

Questions of economic justice or fairness, if they have any merit at all, depend on the existence of a formally organized state.  That is, in the state of nature, and in the absence of the bad acts of others, such a thing as economic “injustice” or “unfairness” does not exist.  A drought that ruins a crop, for example, or a serious injury or illness requiring medical attention, or an inability to acquire provisions for a long winter, do not involve questions of justice or fairness.  They might involve acts of God, nature, or self, and thus would concern, respectively, questions of theology (what man might reasonably expect from God), science (what man might reasonably expect from nature), or morality (what man might reasonably expect from himself).  What they do not concern, however, are questions about what one man can reasonably expect from another man—i.e., justice.  Notions of justice, then, only come into view in the context of political society.

The reason this observation is important is the difference between matters of theology, science, and morality, on the one hand, and justice on the other.  One of the principal reasons justice is a special case has to do with the concept of redress.  In other matters, man can do nothing more than curse God, nature, or himself for the acts done upon him.  In questions of civil wrongs, however, man has a natural right to a remedy for the injuries worked on him by his fellows.  When man fails to honor his obligations to others—imputed upon him either by contract or minimum standards of conduct—justice requires he make whole those who are harmed by his conduct.

Also remember, however, that though we are now in political society where we possess a right of remedy in certain circumstances against the harmful acts of other men, we continue to have no right of remedy against the harmful acts of God, nature, and self.  For example, consider the case of a person of below average intelligence born into poverty.  Assume this person avails himself of the opportunities reasonably available to him, but, by no obvious fault of his own or others, nonetheless fails to pull himself out of poverty.  Because no other man has caused this unfortunate condition to occur, the condition cannot be described as unjust.  Whatever ill this man suffers is a matter of theology, science, or morality, not of justice.

Mistaking Wealth Inequality for Injustice

The insistence that the foregoing example of the poor man unable to pull himself out of poverty poses a problem of injustice typically draws from the argument that wealth disparity represents a substantive evil.  To determine whether wealth inequality does indeed implicate injustice, consider that in a subsistence economy, there is no problem of wealth inequality.  An acre of earth will tend to yield to one man the same number of potatoes or ears of corn as it does to another.  While one man, by virtue of greater physical prowess or skill, might be able to cultivate a bit more land than another, or coax a bit more product from that land, but the difference will tend to be relatively slight.

Far from depending solely upon the earth for our sustenance and pleasure, we now depend upon the product of man’s ingenuity and sweat-of-the-brow for the enormous improvement in productivity and quality of life furnished by our market economy.  While one apple tree will yield roughly the same amount of produce as another, one man, through his diligent labor and prodigious talent, will yield orders of magnitude more useful product than another man.  An economy such as ours that incentivizes such diligence produces tremendous economic output.  While political society under law inevitably results in a disparity of wealth, it cannot be denied that the system has made all of its members better off in absolute terms than they would have been in a subsistence economy.

If this is true—and if it is also true that, absent any unjust human act, redressable economic injustices nonetheless do exist in political society—then we might ask what it is about political society that seems to breed injustice.  As a substantive matter, for the vast majority of people, political society provides a baseline standard of living that is far greater than the baseline available in the state of nature.  For such people, that standard of living cannot constitute a redressable economic harm in political society unless that standard of living is worse than what could have been expected in the state of nature.  In other words, if one would be better off living in the wilderness than in political society, it might be said that political society has failed to fulfill its implicit promise of a better life.  The only cognizable claim of redressable economic injustice, then, might be available for people for whom the economic baseline in political society is less than they would have had in the state of nature.  For such people, entry into political society was a bad bargain, and it might be said that the deprivation of that relative advantage the individual may have had in the state of nature results in a right in the individual to the difference.

The Problem of Power Inequality

Aside from these very rare circumstances, however, I posit that “entitlements” cannot be explained in terms of remediating injustices.  Claims of wealth injustice only arise once a political system is established to safeguard contractual, economic, and property rights.  It is the very act of contracting that permits multiple individuals to exchange goods and services, divide tasks, assign benefits, delegate duties, collectivize labor, and otherwise creatively maximize human productivity through cooperative private agreement.  But it is at even this very basic stage of consensual private collaboration that inequality markedly increases.

There is nothing unjust about economic inequality.  What does become unjust, however, is when those who benefit from an organized system of laws to amass wealth, and then use that wealth to abuse that system of laws.  What results, then, is not just wealth inequality (which I contend is no sin by itself), but power inequality.  Where power inequality exists in great enough measure, a political system can no longer sufficiently guarantee procedural fairness.  And where there is no guarantee of procedural fairness, wealth inequality suddenly becomes a real injustice—inequality of wealth is only just to the extent it is the result of free choices, and free choice cannot be presumed where there exists an inequality of power.

It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes. Distinctions in society will always exist under every just government. Equality of talents, of education, or of wealth cannot be produced by human institutions. In the full enjoyment of the gifts of Heaven and the fruits of superior industry, economy, and virtue, every man is equally entitled to protection by law; but when the laws undertake to add to these natural and just advantages artificial distinctions, to grant titles, gratuities, and exclusive privileges, to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society–the farmers, mechanics, and laborers–who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves, have a right to complain of the injustice of their government. There are no necessary evils in government. Its evils exist only in its abuses. If it would confine itself to equal protection, and, as Heaven does its rains, shower its favors alike on the high and the low, the rich and the poor, it would be an unqualified blessing.

Andrew Jackson’s Veto of Legislation the Bank of the United States, 1832.

Andrew Jackson was an extremely mixed bag, but there is something very attractive about the idea embodied in this quote:  a commitment to equality by protecting rights rather than redistributing property, and a commitment to creating wealth by empowering free economic choices rather than guaranteeing predefined economic outcomes.  The left’s campaign to empower the middle class and the right’s campaign to shrink the size of government should be able to find some common ground in advancing these principles.

[Interestingly, Will Wilkinson and Freddie DeBoer both touched on roughly the same idea recently.  Perhaps this really is an area where conservatives, liberals, and libertarians can converge.]

Tim Kowal

Tim Kowal is a husband, father, and attorney in Orange County, California, Vice President of the Orange County Federalist Society, commissioner on the OC Human Relations Commission, and Treasurer of Huntington Beach Tomorrow. The views expressed on this blog are his own. You can follow this blog via RSS, Facebook, or Twitter. Email is welcome at timkowal at gmail.com.


  1. I think this makes a lot of sense. However the idea of “entitlement” programs is not equalize income, its to provide a safety net. There is nothing about modern liberalism that is trying to equalize wealth, so you are torching a bit of a strawman.

    I think a lot of us on the liberal side would agree that power inequality is a massive problem. In fact power imbalances are probably the biggest threat to our nation. Its part of the reason many of see unions having a role.

    On the leftie side Mike Konczal has touched on this issue in a somewhat different way by talking about what he calls Pity-Charity liberalism which is strong on safety net but doesn’t seek to empower workers and poor folks. This is opposed to a more muscular liberalism that would seek to empower people.

    • My earlier draft referred to “safety nets,” but I changed it to entitlements. Do you really thing there is “nothing” in the left that wants equalization? I’d probably agree it’s a distant second to safety nets, and perhaps pointing out diaparity is mostly a rhetorical device to make the point about safety nets. It’s an interesting distinction that perhaps I haven’t focused on enough.

      The power inequality distinction was inspired by Freddie’s recent post at Balloon Juice. I think there is a potential for a strong link between conservative and liberal ideology here. Where that can ever translate into a bipartisan link is another story.

      • I think Freddie mentioned the Konczal point in his excellent post. I agree there is ground for a liberal/conservative crossover, at least in theory.

        I do not think there is any push for equalization in incomes in the D’s or anything resembling the american left. There is a lot of anger at certain groups of rich folk, like “banksters”, the financial industry, insurance companies, but that is in no way exclusive to the left side of the spectrum. Pushing for return to Clinton era tax rates or even a bit higher, an estate tax, etc is not equalization.

        • I’ll take that into consideration. At the very least, though, the rhetoric makes it difficult not to come to the conclusion that the left wants equalization.

          At any rate, I’m encouraged that you agree there may be common ground.

        • There is a lot of anger at certain groups of rich folk, like “banksters”, the financial industry, insurance companies, but that is in no way exclusive to the left side of the spectrum.

          Though anger at the (much smaller) compensation paid to union members appears to be confined to the right.

          • This is something I’ve never understood: does the Right really believe that labor doesn’t do as much as capital to produce wealth? I ask this sincerely, because in practice, they certainly appear to believe that capital has earned its wealth and putting any burdens on them is unjust, while at the first hint of financial trouble, for the state or a company, 45k plus barely adequate health benefit and retirement benefits that might, supplemented with social security, not only keep you from eating catfood for dinner but even get you that trip to Branson (staying at the Holiday Inn Express) that you’ve been dying to take as you worked for 35 years, is seen as outrageously unjustified. I can’t find a coherent world view in there. I’m obviously missing something.

          • does the Right really believe that labor doesn’t do as much as capital to produce wealth?

            The question itself isn’t well formed, I suspect. What do you mean by “do”?

            I see two more or less fair senses to this word — in one, we are speaking of the pain and sacrifice required of the doer.

            In the other, we are talking about the efficiency of the act — how much, on the margin, and given current economic conditions, is labor contributing? And how much is capital contributing? The amount of contribution is not necessarily proportionate to the sacrifice required.

            I suspect that liberals prefer to speak of the former sense, because it leads to more straightforwardly moralizing conclusions. Conservatives prefer to speak of the latter, because it leads to Chicago-style economics. And also to some very hard questions about marginal utility that can only really answered in… a free market. But if we do answer them, and answer them well, everyone will benefit.

            Thus the question to conservatives (and usually to libertarians) is not whether laborers suffer or sacrifice more per dollar earned. It’s whether (a) the initial distribution was just, (b) parties freely agreed to some re-distribution, perhaps in the form of a work contract, and (c) whether there was a legitimate means of redress for violations of (a) or (b). These are the (highly abstract, not perfectly implemented, not even perfectly theorized yet) minimum conditions needed for implementing a system of private property. Even getting these things roughly right, which we have, yields great benefits.

            The reasons for wanting robust private property in the means of production are several, and many of them actually do relate to workers’ welfare.

            First, directly and naively attempting to give everyone a comfortable life — of the kind you and I both want everyone to have — will always be a disaster.

            We both know this, of course, and we both know that no one is seriously proposing radical economic egalitarianism in American politics anymore.

            The second step is to grant that the kind of comfort we think it would be good for all to enjoy therefore appears to require concentrations of capital. These concentrations are in fact good for the working class. This is very nearly Rawls without the welfare state.

            Consider: The amount of sacrifice borne by capital is tiny, as we both admit. Lopping off that last $100 million from a multi-billion fortune is nothing (it happens to Bill Gates several times a day, actually). This is a small sacrifice for the well-off, and yet it benefits greatly the less fortunate, because the investment of capital, and the risk assumed, allows livelihoods for many thousands of people.

            Is there in practice a gap between what the free market does in this sense, and the Rawlsean maximin optimum? Perhaps. But the conservative argument isn’t unreasonable here, and it actually does play by most of the rules liberals claim to champion.

          • Isn’t Chris’s question a valid one even when framed in the marginal contribution sense? After all, the left is advocating a very modest tax increase, while the right seems determined to legally prohibit laborers from even entering into contracts for the labor they do.

          • Alan,

            If I can assume the validity of my own theory to answer the question, I’d say the reason why the right is reflexively against labor (though in principle it isn’t, and some conservatives acknowledge this) is because of the way the debate has been framed: If you’re for labor, then you’re for wealth equalization; if you’re for individual freedom, then you’re against labor. This is a false dichotomy, but as Pat notes down-thread, that’s the reality of political rhetoric.

      • The “left” (I use scare quotes because in this country, what counts as the “left” is essentially Reagan Republicans, or at least Nixon Republicans) wants to equalize opportunity, not income. This means safety nets, or “entitlements,” or whatever you want to call them. The injustice of economic inequality comes from the fact that it is not “natural” in any reasonable sense of the word, but arises from structural flaws (from the perspective of the “left” they are flaws, at least) that privilege some few individuals over everyone else, not because of anything those individuals have done, but because of certain accidents of fate (like to whom they were born, where they were born, their skin color, their gender, etc.). Put differently, income inequality, in a capitalist system, is power inequality, and power inequality produces income inequality. If, under your view, one is unjust, then the other must be by extension. The two are inseparable, in a capitalist system.

        This is a common conservative mistake, one that I’ve heard a million times over the years: treating a desire for equality of opportunity as a desire for equality of outcomes. The truth is, no one thinks of power inequality as unjust in and of itself, not conservatives or liberals. Power is never equally distributed, because power concentrates itself, and one would have to be the most egregious of head-in-the-cloud utopians in order to think this is not the case. However, inequality of opportunity is, in itself, unjust, because it concentrates power (and in a capitalist system, wealth) not based on any Natural Law or principle of justice, but as I said before, accidents of fate. In fact, without equality of opportunity, without “equal citizenship,” no conception of Natural Law that I know, at least from the Scholastics, can be adhered to. And the fact of the matter is that, in our system, equal citizenship is contingent upon equal economic opportunity. So we’re back to entitlements, safety nets, and all different types of the dreaded redistribution (though not a complete or even major redistribution, at least not for the American “left,” which is only slightly less plutocratic than the American right).

        • Chris,

          I’m not sure I understand where you draw the line between “natural” inequality (which I take it you concede leads to economic inequality that is not unjust) and “structural flaws…that privilege some few individuals over everyone else.” I initially thought what you meant by “structural flaws” was something like “crony capitalism,” and I was going to wholeheartedly agree with you. But when you described “structural flaws” as “accidents of fate,” I got a bit confused. One’s innate intelligence, prowess, mental fortitude, intrapersonal skills, and the like are all “accidents of fate” that have a tremendous impact on one’s economic success. And all of these are certainly “natural,” and no human being can be blamed or credited for whether one lacks or abounds in these traits.

          On the other hand, when you mention “race” and “gender,” I think you are not talking about “natural” inequality, because certainly one’s race and gender have no natural impact on one’s economic success. If they have any impact at all, it is because of artificial forces.

          When you say “income inequality…is power inequality,” I don’t think this is exactly right. Income inequality only leads to power inequality if the political structure permits large factions to amass disproportionate amounts of power, thus resulting in procedural injustice. So no, I do not take income inequality to be a sufficient condition for power inequality: it also requires a corrupt (or readily corruptible) political system.

          I do agree with you that “inequality of opportunity is, in itself, unjust.” Though I suspect we each mean slightly different things by “opportunity.”

          • > So no, I do not take income inequality to be a
            > sufficient condition for power inequality: it
            > also requires a corrupt (or readily
            > corruptible) political system.

            I have yet to see a political system that I don’t think is readily corruptible, actually, so I kind of think the two are close enough to equal to call it a day in practice.

            However, the change in connotation is valuable in getting people on the same page as to potential remedial actions, so I like this anyway 🙂

            I like the characterization of justice to include only those acts of human which are worthy of redress. Social justice terminology is exceedingly weak in class boundaries, and this is a very valid point.

          • Yeah, accidents of fate is unclear. The problem is that I was trying to express something complex succinctly, and failed (miserably, I think). The complexity lies in the fact that much of what will inevitably be rewarded, in any system, has little to do with what we might think of as substance, or natural merit, or anything to do with justice or fairness. Sure, intelligence, leadership skills, innovativeness and creativity, will be rewarded to a certain extent, even physical skill, but so also will self-promotion, blind ambition, and other such things which need not be paired with anything just or fair or meritous.

            But the larger poitn I was making is that it’s not just “crony capitalism” that’s at play, or at least it stretches the meaning of the word to describe the “flaws” of which I was speaking. Power relationships result in cultural or societal inequalities that have little to do with cronyism, at least directly (though they may promote it, or make certain forms of it inevitable). Instead, they more directly create barriers to, if not entry, then advancement, within both the political and economic systems (which ultimately are the same thing, or at least are so intimately intertwined as to be inseparable). Thus, economic inequality is inevitable as a result of power inequality, and economic inequality results in power inequality. And while safety nets may not be designed to be procedural fixes, no liberal here or anywhere, that I know of, sees them as the be all end all. They are just what they’re described as, safety nets. The procedural fixes would do most of the work, if it weren’t for the fact that we really are stuck in a plutocracy that isn’t interested in procedural fixes, because the procedure works just fine for them.

            I should also note that there is another justification for entitlements. All of us benefit from the system (though some benefit much more than others, which is the first point above), but as a result of the system, there will always be people who fall through some crack or another, either permanently (e.g., in the case of permanent disabilities) or temporarily, and the safety nets work here as a safety net to make sure that the system that benefits us all doesn’t let down those who are falling through the cracks. So you have to pars: 1) a movement towards equality of opportunity, through entitlements that attempt to account for existing inequalities, and through procedural fixes that attempt to remove those inequalities (most people on the real left are all about procedural fixes, even if they’re radical ones), and 2.) a recognition that, since we all benefit from the system, it’s in our best interest to make sure that the system doesn’t leave anyone behind for reasons out of their control, or even for inevitable mistakes that we’ll make that shouldn’t be enough to doom us.

      • There are indeed communists. they exist today; they are on the left, and they want to equalize by force. Short of them, no there is no serious contingent on the left that wants forced equalization by force. Many of course do want some degree of redistribution, but then that is essentially consensus across the Left, center, and parts of the moderate right. Some level of redistribution is basically baked into the very concept of government, so from there we are talking about degrees, and, again the opposite pole – “equalization” is as absent in a serious way from mainstream American politics as a concept can reasonably ever be.

        Now, perhaps you didn’t really intend to make the word “equalization” the focus of your inquiry, but if you were to change it to “redistribution,” I think you would find many of your arguments greatly complicated, and in any case suddenly cutting against political positions you hadn’t intended them to do.

        • …Yeah, just want to make sure: Did the “force” idea come across okay there? I’m talking about equalization undertaken *by force* here. 😉

          …Though as it happens, I elected not to mention it, but on reflection I think it worth noting that, as a social-economic (policy?) aspiration, I think a somewhat more equal, as opposed to an extremely unequal, distribution of wealth is broadly shared as a preferable state of affairs for our modern social economy by many conservative and libertarian-ish, as well as liberal and unaligned, thinkers, unless I am mistaken. The contended issue tends to be more the means by which, or whether at all, to pursue that outcome as a policy objective.

          This fact (if you accept it as a fact) I think is worth pausing over a moment to take on board when thinking about how to analyze the implications for politics, and indeed for justice, of various distributions of wealth. Why, after all do people — even many conservatives — tend to prefer avoiding extreme inequalities of wealth, all things being equal and not implicating any particular means for achieving that, if not for reasons of justice at least in part? I don’t contend there aren’t justifiable answers to that question, but I still think it is worth mulling over when thinking about these matters.

          • Michael,

            There are economic—i.e., amoral—reasons for limiting wealth disparity. Wealth disparity might also be seen as a symptom of power inequality. My position is that these are very good reasons to pay attention to wealth disparity and, in some circumstances, limit it, even while there is no evil in wealth disparity in and of itself.

          • Are you sure we can be so confident that these “economic reasons” really are completely “amoral” if we track their premises down to their basic motivating values?

    • Greginak,

      So let’s say you are correct and liberals favor social safety nets to programs that target economic inequality. Is that how they sell them to the voting public? What if a politician said something like, “We favor programs that provide Americans on the skids with the bare amount of support necessary to stay alive and not die of malnutrition, exposure or cholera.”

      Would this win Democrats many votes?

      It seems like social safety nets are promoted as a way to help the lower classes stay competitive and maybe even climb up the economic ladder. How many programs really do that though? It seems at best they are targeted at subsistance which of course opens the whole partisan discussion about liberals needing to maintain a lower class dependent on govt programs as a dependable voting bloc.

  2. When you say “income inequality…is power inequality,” I don’t think this is exactly right. Income inequality only leads to power inequality if the political structure permits large factions to amass disproportionate amounts of power, thus resulting in procedural injustice. So no, I do not take income inequality to be a sufficient condition for power inequality: it also requires a corrupt (or readily corruptible) political system.

    This seems like parsing to me. Aren’t all political systems at least “readily corruptible”? Outside of a theoretical textbook, can you name a political system that isn’t?

    For the US political system, income inequality must certainly equals power inequality.

    • Sure, it’s parsing.

      But it’s an important parsing, because it clarifies the (potentially) accessible middle ground to the Left and the Right. One can agree that procedural unfairness is bad and requires remediation without agreeing that wealth is evil. One can agree that procedural unfairness is bad and requires remediation without conflating wealth with unfairness.

  3. @Pat: I have yet to see a political system that I don’t think is readily corruptible, actually, so I kind of think the two are close enough to equal to call it a day in practice.

    However, the change in connotation is valuable in getting people on the same page as to potential remedial actions, so I like this anyway

    It’s my hope as well that perhaps some common ground can be found here. My guess is liberals rail against both types of inequality, and probably moreso income inequality, since it’s the more tangible symptom. I also guess that conservatives tend to dismiss both sorts of inequality—more or less correctly as to wealth inequality, but incorrectly as to power inequality.

    • > My guess is liberals rail against both types of
      > inequality, and probably moreso income inequality,
      > since it’s the more tangible symptom.

      It is a lot easier to rouse the base with cries of, “That dude makes more money in a day than you will ever see in your lifetime! That must be unjust!” than “Certain people leverage their liquid capital in our representative democracy to embed structural advantages that lead to near-permanent power imbalances in our society!”

      I’m not entirely certain it will go away, because both political poles have a tendency to revert to rousing the base when they feel like they’re under attack, and with the muted and vanishing voice of the political middle, both political poles feel constantly under attack. This dynamic seems embedded enough that it will take a major event to break the current norm, and we have had a number of major events that haven’t been sufficient. I suspect a sustained depression might be the only thing to get this logjam broken.

      Still, it’s a worthy goal in and of itself.

  4. Chris: The complexity lies in the fact that much of what will inevitably be rewarded, in any system, has little to do with what we might think of as substance, or natural merit, or anything to do with justice or fairness. Sure, intelligence, leadership skills, innovativeness and creativity, will be rewarded to a certain extent, even physical skill, but so also will self-promotion, blind ambition, and other such things which need not be paired with anything just or fair or meritous.

    I actually kind of agree with you, though I still disagree with the classifications. Many people achieve economic success by a variety of natural attributes (let’s leave aside the artificial ones for now). Among those natural attributes are ones we might call “meritorious”: intelligence, leadership, creativity, etc. But also among them are ones that are not so meritorious, along the lines of the ones you mentioned: self-promotion, blind ambition, selfishness, unscrupulousness, etc. (Note that I don’t consider these necessary for success, only that, in certain measure, they seem to help.) These are natural traits, even though not meritorious. Yet, they often help in achieving economic success, because of the (perhaps unfortunate) fact that they are useful in successful negotiations with other human beings. They might not like you for these qualities and might not invite you to poker night, but they certainly cannot ignore you when it comes to professional dealings.

    Also, while there is a close relationship between wealth inequality and power inequality, the point that I am subtly trying to make is that there is meant to be barriers and limits in place in our constitutional and federal system of government for the very purpose of preventing these two form of inequality from feeding on each other in the way you describe. Among the more important ways this was traditionally achieved was limited government powers and a balance of power between state and federal governments. Will Wilkinson touches on the contemporary liberal revision to that structure in a recent post:

    A political system that enshrines governments’ power to grant monopolies and other barriers to economic competition, whether they be direct subsidies to government’s chosen champion firms, or less direct subsidies by way of taxes, tariffs, and regulations that disproportionately harm less-favoured firms, inevitably attracts money to politics. Under close inspection, the progressive master narrative is revealed as a tail-chasing, self-consuming progressive Ouroboros. It is an argument against money in politics that argues for precisely the sort of government power that draws money to politics.

    The progressive master narrative runs on the fuel of class interest, but it makes an arbitrary exception for members of the progressive technocratic elite, like Mr Stiglitz. This is the loophole through which the Ouroboros escapes self-cannibalism. These men and women, the technocratic elite, in virtue of their superior moral rectitude and mastery of the relevant social science may be trusted with almost unlimited power to manage the nation’s economy, wars, and far-flung imperial holdings on behalf of the democratic public….

    The nexus of politics and big money is a profound problem, but inequality is at best a manifestation of the problem, not the problem. Inequality is a red herring that draws our attention away from the real, hard task that faces truly public-spirited reformers: how to fix the corrupt and corrupting interface between America’s economic and political institutions. We may hope for, but should not expect, useful, impartial advice in this regard from powerful academics holding golden key-cards to the revolving door. And we may hope for, but should not expect, useful advice in this regard from progressives dizzy from chasing their tails. So, instead, we get righteous rants about the injustice and danger of inequality.

    • The only thing I’d disagree with in Will’s analysis of the situation is the part about inequality being “at best a manifestation of the problem, not the problem.” This looks to me to be myopic, or shortsighted at least. It’s certainly the case that the situation he describes perpetuates and exacerbates inequality, but the situation itself is produced through inequality as well. Inequality is self-reinforcing, in our case through precisely the situation Will describes. So, since liberals are all about reducing inequality of opportunity, it’s undoubtedly the case that they should favor a less plutocratic system (with the technocratic exceptions). The question is, is the system that Will, or you, favor, such a system? Most liberals obviously think it is not, and you’d be hard pressed to find a time in the history of this country, or any other, in which Will’s solution worked to this end, either through the wisdom of the founders or the later modifications to their vision. One could say that the vision has never really been enacted, but in doing so your case becomes no less hypothetical than, say, the real left’s.

      Do liberals, at least in the form of Democrats, have what look like solutions? Aside from some obvious ones, like universal access to health care and labor-friendly policies (even if in 2011, such policies are largely hand-waving, since unions represent such a small portion of the labor force), it doesn’t look to me like they do. But I’m an actual leftist, so I won’t apologize for them. I’ll only say that I don’t see anything resembling a solution from the right, and everything I do see looks like it will only increase inequality, both economic and power.

  5. I gather that you’re the self-appointed defense attorney for the wealthy? American Regressives have worked extremely hard over the past couple of decades to rationalize their worldview. You’ve given them some talking points I’m sure we’ll all hear repeated. A suggestion: if you’re getting paid by the page, double space.

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