It’s safe to say I disagree with him on the merits, but Timothy Noah frames the question provocatively in the correspondence section of the latest Claremont Review of Books, responding to William Voegeli’s unfavorable reviwe of his book The Great Divergence: America’s Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It:
It’s important to begin by pointing out that “Why does economic inequality matter?” is not a question that many people asked 100 years ago, or even 50 years ago. It wasn’t asked 100 years ago because the U.S. was closer than it’s ever been before or since to being violently overthrown by radicals. The ruling class assumed it had to be mindful of inequality in order to keep the government out of the hands of anarchists, socialists, and other troublemakers. The question wasn’t asked 50 years ago because the U.S. was competing for hearts and minds with the Soviet Union and our leaders understood that too much economic inequality would hurt the American argument (which we ultimately won). Today there’s no chance the government will be overthrown by radicals, and Communism is, for all practical purposes, dead. Consequently, the question must be addressed on the merits.
I can’t evaluate Noah’s historical claims, but taking them to be true, Voegeli produces an apt rejoinder:
I close by remarking on Noah’s wistfulness about the absence of internal radicals or external Communists who might prod us to equalize incomes. It is in keeping with his hopes, now certainly flagging, that Occupy Wall Street would catalyze a politically irresistible redistributive movement. In his book’s final sentence–“The worst that we could do to the Great Divergence is get used to it”–Noah is trying to say something to the Americans indifferent to that great crusade. But perhaps they, in their reluctance to enlist, are trying to say something to him about their abiding desire for economic vigor and absolute mobility, and their abiding fears about the power and decency of redistributive government.