How Much Inequality?

A brief essay by Daniel Little on the website UnderstandingSociety asks the following questions, examining the issues of inequality in income and opportunity from moral, social justice, social cohesiveness, and utilitarian perspectives, with links to additional writings on each view.

How much inequality is too much?  Answers range from Gracchus Babeuf (all inequalities are unjust) to Ayn Rand (there is no moral limit on the extent of inequalities a society can embody). Is there any reasoned basis for answering the question?  What kinds of criteria might we use to try to answer this kind of question?

Ayn Rand’s novels appear to have infected a large number of people with the notion that moral considerations of inequality in a society are inappropriate when compared to the rights and motivations of the individual, which argument is helping fuel the divisive gridlock on economic matters policy makers are facing in States and the Federal government. The author of a budget proposal lacking a moral compass, Paul Ryan, is awarded a “fiscal responsibility” award, while legislation to aid job creation and to continue benefits for millions of the long-term unemployed is routinely blocked, growing an underclass of otherwise productive workers unable to return to their former areas of expertise or income levels. The States under growing budget constraints choose to cut revenues, primarily for those at the top of the income scale, while they reduce spending, placing the burden of strangled government on the shoulders of the unemployed, the elderly, children, the sick, and the disabled. It is not hard to see the moral inequality of these actions, and as Joseph Stiglitz in his commentary and latest book, The Price of Inequality, How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future, points out social cohesiveness is at risk as those in the vice of unequal policy and advantage in society reject and resist such policy. (More here.)

America has long prided itself on being a fair society, where everyone has an equal chance of getting ahead, but the statistics suggest otherwise: the chances of a poor citizen, or even a middle-class citizen, making it to the top in America are smaller than in many countries of Europe. The cards are stacked against them. It is this sense of an unjust system without opportunity that has given rise to the conflagrations in the Middle East: rising food prices and growing and persistent youth unemployment simply served as kindling. With youth unemployment in America at around 20 percent (and in some locations, and among some socio-demographic groups, at twice that); with one out of six Americans desiring a full-time job not able to get one; with one out of seven Americans on food stamps (and about the same number suffering from “food insecurity”)—given all this, there is ample evidence that something has blocked the vaunted “trickling down” from the top 1 percent to everyone else. All of this is having the predictable effect of creating alienation—voter turnout among those in their 20s in the last election stood at 21 percent, comparable to the unemployment rate.

And the driver of this alienation…? The “anything goes” philosophy from the right that has promoted security force violence against students and demonstrators protesting the effects of inequality, too big to fail industries that privatize their profits while socializing the risks they take to realize their profits, and unresponsive government unwilling and unable to represent the vast majority of people in their societies. Can we do better? Let us hope so…

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