Madison, father of the U.S. Constitution, regarded the
passion for equality as wicked, unrealistic, and destructive
of free societies. Today's ideological debates about the
fairness of income distribution need to move beyond
questions of economics to consider the philosophical and
theological dimensions of inequality.
On December 4, 1995, the Washington Times published a
letter from Secretary of Labor Robert Reich. He wrote:
"Except for those who revere ideological preconceptions over
the evidence of their own eyes, the growth in inequality and
the precariousness of the middle class are stunningly
obvious features of the contemporary American
Although the secretary's argument is putatively about
numbers, his rebuttal here is to claim ideological
distortion on the part of his opponents. That is an
indication that we are dealing not only with economics and
numbers but with political appetites.
want to approach the subject of inequality not just on the
economic level and not only on the political level but on a
philosophical--and, in the end, on a theological--level. I
hope to show that that is where the real argument lies. In
the twenty-first century, the importance of this third level
will become vividly clear.
Secretary Reich asserts that those who disagree with him
revere ideological preconceptions over the evidence of their
own eyes. What should we say, however, about the evidence of
our own eyes? Let me report what I see.
I have a habit of watching shoes in poor areas of cities. I
grew up in a poor family. We inherited tennis shoes from
older siblings or cousins; we were quite happy if they did
not already have holes. I observe today that the shoes in
poor areas of American cities are far better than shoes we
ever wore. I note in poor areas that about 95 percent of
homes have color TVs. When I visit colleges, I am reminded
of a current definition: "A university is a massive parking
lot here and there interrupted by building projects." Those
acres of parking lots filled with shiny late-model cars are
incredible to one who went to college in the 1950s; at that
time, only a handful of my classmates had automobiles of
their own, and if so, usually clunkers.
Again, I notice when I go back to Pennsylvania, especially
in the rural areas (which are supposed to be so poor), the
shininess of the pickup trucks and the extensive number of
gadgets they carry. If these belong to males whose wages are
stagnating, something extraordinary is going on, because
they drive vehicles no one poor thirty years ago dreamed of
owning. At Penn State football games, the tailgate parties
are lavish beyond belief, and so are the provisions hunters
take with them into the Pennsylvania hills. The evidence of
my senses belies what I read in stories about wage
stagnation and inequality. More money is being spent
In brief, the appeal to evidence of one's own eyes depends
on one's own eyes. If real wages are stagnating, it also
helps to recognize that they are among the highest of all
human history. In international comparisons, it is true that
at the lowest levels the United States does badly, but at
the highest levels we do better than anybody else. If you
look at the median levels, moreover, we seem to be ahead of
practically everybody else except the Swiss.
The New Wealth and
There has been a tremendous change in our bottom
quintile that most analysts are not noticing. This quintile
is not composed of the same sorts of people as twenty or
thirty years ago. In the bottom quintile these days, only
one of every five persons is working full-time year-round.
That is not the way it was. There used to be a lot of
working people, particularly male heads of families, in the
bottom quintile. In the bottom quintile today, two-thirds of
the heads of households are single women. About one-half of
these are younger women with children, and about one-half
are widows (mostly over sixty-five). Today the bottom
quintile is different in its makeup from the other four
quintiles. The bottom fifth does not contain many intact
married families. It does not contain many full-time
workers. A majority of its householders are not working at
all, even part-time.
f you remember that in the upper four quintiles more than
half the women have gone to work in the past twenty years,
you see the tremendous effect that the rapid entry of women
into the work force has had on income inequality. If a
postal worker earns $20,000 per year and his spouse also
goes to work at $20,000, their combined income is $40,000.
If a professor goes to work at $50,000 and his or her spouse
goes to work at about the same, their family income is
$100,000. The disparity between the incomes of these two
families has jumped quite significantly. When only the males
worked, the gap was $30,000; when both spouses in each
family work, the gap between families has grown to $60,000.
Any gap is much more significant when you double it.
In other countries, has the same thing happened to their
bottom quintile? Do other countries experience the same
effect when both husband and wife work? Is that
effect on inequality being measured? Does their bottom
quintile mostly consist of young female heads of households
A Brief History of
It seems significant that those, such as Secretary
Reich, who are most passionately insisting that "growing"
inequality is a fact and insisting that everybody must
recognize it as a fact, tend to be on the social democratic
side of the political spectrum. They seem to be raising the
question because they believe government redistribution is
the cure. On the other side, conservatives have been tending
to resist the social democratic interpretation of the
figures. The conservatives are asking new questions of the
data. For centuries, the word equal in English was
used chiefly in the context of the reduction of privileges.
Some people, because of birth, had open to them a range of
actions that people of lower birth simply could not licitly
perform. The term equal was used in this social
context to urge the reduction of privilege, so as to place
everyone in the same status under the law.
Not until some time later, gathering force in the eighteenth
century (because of a religious group in England, the
Levelers), did the word equal take on another
connotation. This new usage began to creep beyond the
reduction of privilege to an argument for near uniformity.
That is, justice entails leveling--equality reaches
beyond privilege and wealth. It goes to relatively uniform
power in decision making. This new meaning of the word
equal was reinforced by the French Revolution and its
attempt literally to guillotine higher levels of the
aristocracy in the name of cutting everybody down to size.
And, indeed, the French word for equality, é,
came into English in the francophonic term
egalitarian--a very French idea.
Thus, usage slipped away from "reduction of privilege" to
the ideal notion that the utopian society, pure democracy,
demands the radical cutting down of people to one size. This
notion of uniformity does not conform to ancient ideals; is
a new ideal. Earlier, people would have been amazed that a
kind of uniformity would be favored as a beautiful ideal,
instead of as ugly, horrible, and frightening.
If you add to this the movement of socialism, with its own
dream of equality--that justice means not just bringing down
privilege but also bringing down the rich (a very
different concept)--you come to the present stage of
complaints about equality. Today, the term equality
(really an arithmetic term) is exchanged as smoothly as by
magical trick with the ethical term equitable.
Unequal--a common enough characteristic in nature--is by
prestidigitation used interchangeably with
inequitable. Usage constantly moves back and forth
between a sheerly arithmetical relationship and a heavily
laden ethical relationship. From this word play ultimately
comes an operational mandate: the state must move incomes as
close to arithmetical equality as possible by taking from
those with more and giving to those with less until the
state achieves some "rough" equality (nobody wants to say a
perfect level--that would be absurd, and people back
off from absurdity).
An Experiment in
James Madison in Federalist 10 points out how
the experiment in the American republic
different from the utopian thinking then being encouraged in
France. He refers to the "theoretic politicians" (by which,
scholars think, he means Rousseau) and calls the passion for
equality "wicked." Madison points out that some think that
pure democracy rests on equality in property. He disagrees.
He holds that factions are the air needed by the fire of
liberty and that factions generally form around differences
of property. The main business of government, in Madison's
view, is to maintain inequalities of property.
The founders were quite conscious that our experiment in
republican government was not an experiment in
democracy or equality in the French sense. Ours was from the
beginning an experiment in liberty and inequality. The
British socialist writer Raymond Williams points out that
equality of opportunity in this sense means the opportunity
to become unequal. If a people relies on talent and ability
and luck as measures of fortune, outcomes will be unequal.
The only way to prevent that result is by force.
One other bit of confusion has entered our thinking on
equality. That is the Jewish and Christian concept that true
religion consists in caring for the widow and the orphan,
for the poor and the vulnerable. This conviction has had a
tremendous, long-term effect on our political history, such
that today nearly all persons--even secular, unbelieving
people--hold that the good society is measured by how well
it cares for the poor and vulnerable. In ancient Greece and
Rome, in Egypt, and elsewhere, such an idea was seen to be
counter to nature, perhaps a sign of sentimentality and
weakness of mind. Plato held that most human beings have
slavish instincts and are slaves by nature.
Compassion, in this sense, entered history with
Judaism and Christianity, and has much influenced secular
liberals, self-confessedly Bertrand Russell, for instance.
Since the eighteenth century, in any case, there has been a
gradual merging of these two visions, compassion and
equality (in the egalitarian sense). These are two quite
different themes with different origins, but they have been
blended into one. Note first the difference: you can imagine
a quite unequal society marked by a high level of
compassion; some medieval kingdoms were like that. And you
can have a relatively egalitarian society in which nobody
gives a hoot about anybody else. An intensely materialistic
welfare state seems naturally bent in that direction.
The influence of these twin themes, compassion and equality,
flows directly into the social democratic vision. Most
welfare societies today are moved by this vision.
But today the social democratic welfare states are all
broke. They all see they cannot go on this way. Far
from helping to cure the diseases and remedy the needs of
the poor, they have increased the numbers of people seeking
those remedies. Give government subsidies to people with
disabilities, and pretty soon the number of people with
disabilities will exceed all expectations and predictions.
If such subsidies require the permission of a doctor,
doctors will soon feel they cannot but say, Yes, you are
disabled. (If the money is out there, why should I deny it
to this person--am I God?)
Thus, practically everywhere, the welfare state is being
questioned on account of the bad moral habits it is inducing
at every level of society--not just among the poor, not just
among the clients, but among the providers. Thus, two
facts--that the welfare states are going broke and that they
are not having the moral effects that they thought they
would have--give rise to much restlessness about the
foundations of social democratic belief. That is why every
major welfare state is wrestling with how to turn in a new
who point to "growing inequality" in the United
States--Lester Thurow is one--say that it will rend the
social fabric. Polling data suggest, however, that ordinary
Americans are much less taken with the social democratic
vision of equality than are intellectuals. Polls in other
countries say that if presented with a policy by which
everybody's outcome will be better but some people will have
much better outcomes, a high proportion would say no.
In other words, they would rather have everybody less well
off, so long as all are more or less equal. In the United
States, envy plays a far smaller role. Practically all
Americans would agree that if everybody is better
off, it does not matter if some are much better off--they or
their children would like to have that chance.
What if envy is not the governing passion of most Americans?
What if the fact that others are getting much wealthier than
they are themselves does not much bother Americans? In the
Bible, envy (under the name covetousness) is forbidden five
times in the Ten Commandments. Recall also the story of the
Balkan peasant to whom God appeared and said, "I will give
you whatever you wish, but under one condition: Whatever you
get, your neighbor will get twice of." Instantly, the
peasant said, "Take out one of my eyes." If you want to know
whether there are societies ruled by envy, there are.
The whole American experiment, by contrast, has been based
on the opposite proposition--that if you provide liberty and
a chance for everybody to better his condition, people will
not be envious of their neighbors. As long as there is
opportunity for all, people will be quite content with
A Social Ideal for
In the future, the most successful social ideal will
have three components. First, for reasons of merit,
there should be unequal outcomes, because they are
based on talent, on effort, and on luck. That is the normal
course of human life. The only way you can stop it is by
Second, there should be humane care for the vulnerable, and
the level of that care should be set not just at the bare
minimum--the minimum should be redefined upward over time. A
helping hand should be extended especially to those who try
but through no fault of their own are in need. It should
also be extended to those who are not in a position to try
in the first place--and, in the end, even to those who
The level of care for the poor is a crucial concern to a
society whose roots are Jewish and Christian. But concern
for the poor is different from the concern for equality.
Jews and Christians are not trying to make the poor equal to
anybody; they are trying to help them walk on a decent,
humane, upward-sloping path.
The third element of the ideal is this: the passion
for equality should be regarded as Madison regarded it--it
is wicked. The passion for equality foments envy and
destruction. It is wholly unrealistic. And it is wedded to
tyranny or its weaker and spendthrift sister, statism.
I predict this will be the drift of arguments over the next
generation. The philosophical and theological
foundations of social democracy are turning to sand.