I usually read George Will because he is among the more thoughtful and intelligent commentators on the American right wing. He’s really more of a British-style Tory than an American Tea Party type. But he’s usually wrong, and in the case of his recent column, I have to wonder if he hit a deadline before he was really finished with the piece.
The basic thesis is that Bernie Sanders (and the Democratic Party as a whole) is unduly preoccupied with economic inequality, which is not much of a problem at all. First, obviously, a free market (“impersonal market forces”) will produce inequality. Besides, he says, “some people want to teach, others want to run hedge funds.”
Not only is inequality a natural result of a free market, it is also, Will argues, enhanced by such aspects of the modern state as regulatory policies and deficit spending, both of which tend to favor the “haves” over the “have-nots” (the former can pay lobbyists and buy government bonds). Inequality, in short, is a predictable result of both a market economy and a modern state. It is exacerbated, he maintains, by family disintegration, the increasing prevalence of single mothers.
Will recommends that Sanders should take a little time off to read a new book, On Inequality, by Harry Frankfurt. This book argues that “It is misguided to endorse economic egalitarianism as an authentic moral ideal.” Instead, Frankfurt argues for a “doctrine of sufficiency:” everyone should have enough to live the life they want.
Frankfurt does acknowledge that economic inequality has “an almost irresistible tendency to generate unacceptable inequalities of other kinds,” but Will chooses not to focus on that.
Will (and the conservative majority who decided Citizens United) are utterly insensitive to the impact of extreme inequality on democracy.
What’s wrong with this picture? One fundamental flaw is the universal right-wing tendency to idealize the free market. There has never been any such thing as a free market, except in the fevered dreams of some classical economists and their acolytes. Over the long term, the state serves the interests of the economically powerful, thereby making them more powerful. We have seen this over the last half century as big business has been able to keep real wages flat, eviscerate unions, and export jobs, all with the active cooperation of the government. The result has been the increasing concentration of both income and property in the hands of a small part of the population.
Inequality at the level we have now is a real problem because it means that the majority of the population must now struggle to keep their heads above water. The typical family now has at least two wage-earners, or a single earner working two or more jobs, just to keep from falling further behind. Nobody chooses to work two or three jobs at minimum wage. This is not a free market; it’s a coercive market for those who don’t start with advantages. At this level of inequality, the least well-off are far short of Frankfurt’s “sufficiency.”
Moreover, Will (and the conservative majority who decided Citizens United) are utterly insensitive to the impact of extreme inequality on democracy. The Citizens United decision afforded unrestricted rights to spend money on political campaigns, in the name of respecting the right of free speech. The rich and poor have equal rights to express themselves by spending millions of dollars on political propaganda.
What both Will and Chief Justice John Roberts ignore is that democracy is based on the premise that all citizens are equal. Even if perfect equality is an unattainable ideal, we have to see that at present levels of economic inequality, the equality of every citizen is an illusion. If we are serious about our democracy, we must commit to reducing our present levels of inequality.
Many people look back on the 1950s as a kind of golden age in America. If we could get back to that much more modest level of inequality, we’d all be much better off, including the rich. Because back then, average people could buy stuff that rich people were selling. Back then, Dwight Eisenhower was a pro-business Republican. In George Will’s Republican Party, there would be no room for an Eisenhower. Ike might even have endorsed Bernie Sanders.