Power, wealth, and inequality

On principle, representative democracies reject political equality.  The President and Congress have all the power to legislate, regulate, and compel other Americans; I have none.  That their power is temporary doesn’t enter the argument.  Other Presidents and other members of Congress will take the place of the current group, and they will have power while I have none.  Rotational inequality serves us far better than permanent tyranny — but it shouldn’t be confused with equality of any kind.

On principle, free-market economies demand inequality of income and wealth.  Unless some can afford what others can’t, unless some are disproportionately rewarded for their disproportionate success, the whole system of incentives comes to a grinding halt.  I won’t belabor this obvious fact.

In a recent post, I suggested that the “self-evident” truths of the Declaration of Independence largely ignored political and economic equality.  The Founders were interested in equality of a different sort, at once more technical and more universal.

They fervently believed in equality before the law, and in the equal worth and dignity of each individual as a moral agent.  That being the case, they formulated fair rules of play, and expected American citizens to succeed or fail, morally and materially, by their own efforts rather than through the guidance of wise men or kings.

Let’s now leave the ideology of the Founding Fathers behind, and pose a couple of real-world questions.  One is:  can there be such a thing as moral equality, absent the political and economic kind?  The other:  is equality itself a virtue, in every aspect of life?

To answer the first question, we need to understand what is meant by such high-flown notions as moral worth, human dignity, and the primacy of the individual.  Because these phrases are habitually invoked by those who trample on them — from Islamist beheaders to U.N. place-holders — their real-life meaning has become obscured.

In a sense, this meaning is quite simple.  Face to face with President Bush or Bill Gates, I wouldn’t feel that I was in the presence of superior beings.  These are men like myself, who have succeeded at some things — succeeded greatly, it may be — but failed at other things, including some that I might consider important.  The differences between us are entirely of degree, not of kind, and they don’t all tally to their benefit.

In a more profound sense, the meaning of individual worth is very difficult to get at, because it arises from our universal ignorance of one another.  Private plans and public behavior diverge, always; I can observe the latter but not the former.  I can pass judgment on your actions, but not on your intentions and plans.  Therefore, you must be allowed the widest possible latitude for action:  for me to judge you before you act would be to pretend that I am, indeed, a superior being.

Even husbands and wives of many years often can’t tell what is in the other’s heart.  But good marriages are based on trust, not on jealousy and spying.  What I believe to be the inalienable moral worth of the individual is nothing more than a pact of universal trust in one’s neighbors.  We will surely judge each other’s actions, but only because we have all been given wide discretion within the law to do good or evil.

Is this a case of my being hopelessly naive — of what the Marxists called “false consciousness,” in which a slave internalizes the value system that keeps him in chains?  George Bush and his cronies, Bill Gates and his fellow plutocrats — don’t they in reality run the system to their private profit, and leave us the bare minimum to keep us contented?

Many learned persons would answer “yes” to both questions.  Anyone paying close attention, though, will immediately observe that such questions are extremely difficult — maybe impossible — to answer.  In effect, I would have grounds for claiming to be a superior being if I could discern that someone was afflicted with false consciousness, and could break the code of secret cabals that duped the masses but not me.  (Part of the appeal of Marxism and Freudianism was their code-breaking pretensions:  opponents never really had arguments, they were “bourgeois” or “repressing.”)

Yet inequality is manifested in visible, measurable differences.  The strong and the weak don’t look alike, and don’t lift the same-size barbells.  Systems that make fundamental value distinctions between types of humanity have invariably insisted on outward markings to identify the superior and inferior man.  The Jew was made to wear distinct clothing in medieval Europe and the Arab caliphate, for example.  In Spain, as late as the 1930’s ladies from the city wore hats while peasant women wore shawls.  In London, Pygmalion’s Professor Higgins instructed us, one could be placed within a matrix of social class and city neighborhood by the sound of one’s speech.

Such imposed inequalities rarely enter into American life.  Regional accents survive, and blacks often use speech as a means of group identity — only to be copied by white kids.  But Bill Gates’ looks, dress, or speech fail to differentiate him from your average Joe:  I mean, is this the face of a superior man?  And President Bush (whose speech is the subject of much mirth) wears his suits like a policeman wears his uniform, to signify the job, but in private is much happier being seen as a rugged, do-it-yourself type.

Of course, these are superficial tokens of more important but still measurable differences:  greater or lesser wealth, health, education, life expectancy, mobility, etc.  Here the data points in a different direction.  There’s little doubt that low incomes correlate with worse health and shorter lifespans.  It’s also true, statistically, that certain minority groups such as blacks fall into all these categories:  less income, worse health, and shorter lives than whites on average.

The case is often made that this matrix of inequalities is a natural consequence of the system ruled by the George Bushes and Bill Gateses of the world.  The latter reap disproportionate benefits, while the poor and dark-skinned suffer degradation and exploitation.

This judgment on our system assumes that equality is a universal virtue.  But we make no such assumption.   Consider:  people who drop out of school, and smoke and drink to excess, will earn less and live shorter lives than the American average — but this is entirely a consequence of their decisions.  Within the law, we are given the opportunity to fail, and to lead risky lives.  That’s as the Founders intended.  The system they erected would stand indicted only if its inequalities could be proven to be structural rather than resulting from individual choices.

If inequality doesn’t necessarily mean degradation, then we must ask a number of questions about the data given above.  Who are the poor?  Why are they poor?  Are they poor absolutely, or only in relative terms — that is, in terms of inequalities whose moral implications are, to us, uncertain?  Can it be demostrated that the lowest classes aren’t condemned to poverty?  That blacks don’t suffer from structural racism?

I won’t pretend to answer, in a blog post, such complex and far-ranging questions.  But let me suggest that the data is open to interpretation.  Take statistics about black mortality:  black women, it turns out, have a longer life expectancy than white men — the category that includes President Bush and Bill Gates.  How can that be explained in terms of structural oppression?

It turns out, too, that 41 percent of black men die from homicide or AIDS.  Those are behavior-related causes of death.  At a minimum, a component of moral judgment enters the matter:  and black men judge differently from black women.

The poor of today have more possessions than ever before.  Some 46 percent own their own homes, 75 percent own cars, 76 percent of poor households have air conditioning and 97 percent color televisions.  The average living space for the American poor is greater than for the average Parisian.  The category appears to be entirely relative, created by the government to identify those in potential economic need.

There’s also a great churning in and out of the poverty line:  half of all poverty “spells” last less than four months, and 80 percent last less than a year.  Most interestingly, the share of median income received by the lowest-earning 10 percent in the U.S. and Finland, a famously egalitarian society, is identical:  38 percent.

At a minimum, we have grounds to doubt the existence of a permanent, exploited class in America, which suffers the effects of structural oppression and discrimination.  Other explanations, involving personal decisions — moral choices — may be brought forward to explain the data.  Moral equality may be possible, absent political and economic equality.

The key problem, then, is posed by our second quesion:  whether equality is everywhere a virtue, and inequality always translates into degradation.  Belief in both these propositions underlies most criticism of the system built by the Founding Fathers.

I promise to offer an answer in a future post.

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