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If you’ve been paying attention, you know that, in the United States, both income and property are more unequally distributed today than at any time in the last century. Since 1980, almost all gains in both income and property have gone to the top one percent of the population, while incomes and assets for the rest of us have been flat or declining.

Conservatives say, “So what?” Inequality, they argue, is a feature of all societies, and in our free enterprise economy, inequality merely reflects the superior performance of those who have more. That’s why compensation of top CEOs that runs in the hundreds of millions of dollars is justified: they supposedly earned it. Redistribution to favor the unrich, goes the argument, is contrary to the immutable laws of the free market.

This is a convenient myth for the rich and the right-wing economists who defend them, but the many middle class Tea Partiers don’t realize that they’ve been had. While it’s easy and gratifying to point out the cases of individuals who started poor and became rich by working hard, for every such success story there are thousands who start poor, work hard, and stay poor. For every rags-to-riches story there are hundreds who start rich and stay that way, even though they don’t work much.

Wealth buys privilege and power. It gives privileged access to the policymakers who write tax loopholes and regulate commerce in ways that favor the wealthy. It is like honey to a bear: candidates will do anything and say anything to please the big donors. Just witness how potential Republican presidential candidates genuflect before the Koch brothers.

There is nothing about unregulated (“free”) markets that guarantees equal opportunity. On the contrary, experience has shown that concentration of economic power (wealth) just makes it easier for those who have it to get more. It also makes it easier for those who have it to defeat those who don’t have it (and are trying to get it).

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The only way our economy can produce equal opportunity for every person is through a systematic policy of redistributing wealth from the rich to the unrich. Our failure to do that in recent decades has put us on the road to plutocracy.

Those who have acquired wealth usually want to pass it on to their offspring. Never mind that this blatantly contradicts the myth of the “self-made man.” The rich man often talks about wanting his children to have advantages he didn’t have, but those advantages amount to a leg up for his heirs, as compared to those without such an inheritance. It’s like the proverbial young man who was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.

The only way our economy can produce equal opportunity for every person is through a systematic policy of redistributing wealth from the rich to the unrich. Our failure to do that in recent decades has put us on the road to plutocracy (rule by the rich).

On top of all that, our treasured democracy itself faces a mortal threat from economic inequality. The reason is simple: democracy is based on the idea that all citizens are equal, and have equal voices in selecting those who control the government. Yet that formal equality is no more than a myth in a society where the wealthy are much more able to make themselves heard.

Indeed, our current Supreme Court, in its Citizens United decision of 2009, enshrined the idea that spending money is a form of speech that may not be restricted, no matter how much more money some have than others. Citizens United also established the strange and frightening notion that corporations have the same free speech rights as persons. So you or I have the same right as any corporation (ExxonMobil, for example) to spend as much of our money as we wish in support of political candidates.

We cannot have a meaningful democracy when wealth (including corporate wealth) is allowed such an open field to wield its power. What we have, more and more each day, is a plutocracy with a democratic mask.

As long as we have an economy that allows the concentration of wealth, the struggle to make democracy more real, like that to assure equal economic opportunity, can never be finally won. But we can surely lose it.

john peeler

John Peeler