When I am intoxicated, having inhaled the Occupy Wall Street vapors, I dream that this time, in this election, the fight against inequality will finally carry the day. In my sober moments, I realize that building on the American yearning for fairness is a much safer bet. But then I found a way to have it both ways.
Attacking inequality head on is very seductive. Inequality is much more severe than it has been for decades. The promise of social mobility is increasingly a mirage. The fact that OWS?s most successful slogan by a country mile is ?We Are the 99 Percent? suggests that people are recognizing the injustice of it all. Wall Street?s shameless shenanigans are on everyone?s lips. Polls show that raising taxes on the rich, and specifically the Buffett Rule (instituting a minimum tax rate of 30 percent on all earning more than $1 million a year), are winning issues.
Second thoughts give me pause. Most progressive leaders are quick to explain that the equality they envision is not of results but of opportunities. The government aims not to ensure that the differences in what we get or have will much decline, but to remove the barriers that prevent us from participating in the race to succeed. However, as has often been noted, even when that race is open to all, without equality of results, the starting point itself remains unequal, hampering those who begin the race farther from the finish line. And many run with cannonballs tied to their legs, made up of previous injustices not compensated for.
Yet putting equality of results on the agenda may still be politically suicidal. Many liberals subscribe to the lesson imparted by leading progressive economist Arthur Okun. He held that the government works to temper income differences, but also noted that such efforts risk creating disincentives to work and investment. He argued for limiting the transfer of money from rich to poor so as not to lose much economic growth, which he showed required that those who work and save more gain extra rewards. Okun advanced this thesis some thirty-five years ago, when inequality was much less steep than it is now, and he wrote that his conclusions only held under conditions of lower unemployment than the United States currently faces. However, as Charles Lane commented, ?The American public intuitively shares Okun?s concerns.? Indeed, according to the December 2011 Gallup poll Lane cited, roughly 82 percent of Americans believe growth to be either ?extremely? or ?very? important, while only 46 percent feel that ?reduc[ing] the income and wealth gap between rich and poor? is ?extremely? or ?very? important.
Nor can one disregard the issue of personal responsibility. People on the left, for good reason, hold that if people are disadvantaged, this is mainly due to social conditions they have been cast into, rather than their own fault. However, few if any would argue that the poor or minorities can sit back and wait for social change to take care of them. They still are called upon to do their best under the circumstances, both politically and personally. However, it is difficult to square this sense of personal responsibility with the concept of equality of results. Either equality of results is limited to some basics (in which case it amounts to safety nets) or else it agitates against personal responsibility.
Maybe even more telling is the idea, particularly widespread in the United States, that those governments that have explicitly pushed for equality also trampled on liberty?and ended up showering privileges on their elites, as in the USSR and China. One may claim that supporters of more extensive redistribution in this country, other than a few obscure sectarians, are primarily demanding more robust welfare provisions and a higher top tax rate, not a Leninist party that will seize the state and dispossess the bourgeoisie. However, in the public mind there still is a strong association between regimes that accord (or say they accord) high value to equality and the use of force.
Nor can one ignore that John Rawls, considered by many to have been the greatest liberal-left philosopher of our time, argued that in a just society, the upper classes may increase their wealth?as long as they lift the lower classes to the greatest extent possible. He does not call for equality, but instead argued that ?Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: first, they are to be attached to positions and offices open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second, they are to be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society.?
Fairness, in contrast to equality, is a much more reliable precept. As James Q. Wilson concluded, on the basis of observational studies, we all develop a moral sense of fairness as children, whether from innate qualities or (more likely) an outgrowth of the socialization processes children undergo. The most important feature of this sense, according to Wilson, is playing by the rules. I asked my six-year-old grandchild about a birthday party in which one kid got a much larger slice of pizza than the others. He responded without batting an eye, ?Not fair!? I wondered aloud: ?What if the kid got a smaller slice last time?? He rushed to respond, ?There is always some excuse.?
Several public opinion polls, especially those that ask people if they want more equality without telling them what gaining it would entail, may seem to support the notion that Americans have become somewhat socialist. One should, however, heed the summary provided by Andrew Kohut, a leading analyst of polls. ?People don?t necessarily want to take money from the wealthy; they just want a better chance to get rich themselves. They care about policies that give everyone a fair shot.?
No wonder President Obama uses the term ?fair? umpteen times for every time he as much as mentions inequality. One of his most often repeated lines is, ?I believe that this country succeeds when everyone gets a fair shot, when everyone does their fair share, when everyone plays by the same rules.?
My friends on the left may well consider fairness a vague, apolitical, squishy, petit bourgeois concept, just a step or two above such bland concepts as civility and etiquette. The good news is that if one examines the various policy ideas that are on the table that would move us in the right direction, one finds that they all can be strongly supported both in terms of promoting equality and overcoming rank unfairness. These include a non-confiscatory inheritance tax on sizable estates; the Buffett Rule, mentioned above; a somewhat higher tax on the richest of them all; the ending of special breaks for oil companies and of corporate welfare in general; and allowing shareholders to vote on the salaries of CEOs, among other measures.
To line up behind an agenda of fairness, and to leave the talk about inequality for another day, is not merely a matter of savvy framing for a close election. It is a step that does not require leaving on the cutting-room floor any policy that good people should favor and that has a prayer of carrying the day in November and in the four years that follow.