Inequality and Ideology

By Michael Novak

James 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 landscape."

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 somehow.

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 Poverty

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 and widows?

A Brief History of Equality

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 Liberty

James Madison in Federalist 10 points out how the experiment in the American republic is 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 direction.

Those 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 unequal outcomes.

A Social Ideal for the Future

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 force.

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 will not.

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.

 Michael Novak is George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. This essay is based on a presentation at AEI's Annual Policy Conference on December 5, 1995.