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Progressives have always seen a problem with inequality: demands for a fair deal for workers, for small farmers, for the poor and racial minorities are perennial features of the programmatic ideas of people on the Left, both here and elsewhere in the world. Conversely, conservatives have pretty much always defended the status quo that entrenches a few rich and leaves the rest of us to fend for ourselves.

inequality

These two perspectives are rooted in radically different assumptions. Progressives assume that people with a lot of money had a good deal of help getting it, whether through inheritance or through government policies that favored them, such as subsidies and tax loopholes. Take, for example, government policies that allow energy companies to extract coal, oil and gas without having to pay the full cost of the environmental damage they do. Or the tax cuts enacted by three of the last four Republican presidents (Reagan, George W. Bush and Trump), all of which channeled the lion’s share of benefits to high income individuals and corporations.

Conservatives, conversely, assume that the people and corporations with most of the assets got them fair and square. The government should not be taking some of their money to give to those who are less well off, because being less well off is, on the face of it, evidence that they don’t want to work.

Here I will make the case that inequality is something that even conservatives should worry about.

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The majority of people in this country believe that the government serves the rich and doesn’t care about people like them. 

From a political perspective, progressives rightly make the point that, at the extreme levels of economic equality that have developed over the last half century, democracy is seriously compromised. The idea of democracy starts from the premise that every citizen is equal: one person, one vote. Now, in practice there will always be some inequality, but at least we want to have equal opportunity for all. Everybody should start the race at the same place. The further we get from that ideal of equal opportunity, the worse for democracy. That’s because having more economic resources automatically gives you more political power, thus undercutting the premise of the equality of every citizen.

Conservatives tend to think that’s just fine. They like democracy when they win elections, but failing that, they fall back on the notion that what we have is not a democracy, but a republic, where the propertied interest is protected by various checks on popular sovereignty. They often fail to grasp the danger that the popular majority will stop believing that there is equal opportunity. When that happens, popular support for the conservatives’ republic will weaken. Indeed, we can see that happening today: the majority of people in this country believe that the government serves the rich and doesn’t care about people like them. Thus, conservatives ought to support policies to reduce inequality in order to maintain the legitimacy of the political system they depend on to defend their property.

From an economic perspective the case is even stronger. Most progressives acknowledge that we have, and will continue to have, a capitalist economy that works through markets that require government regulation to avoid the concentration of economic power in a few hands. Conservatives tend to glorify the free market and to resist government regulation. But viewed over time, a firm that is successful in selling its products, besting its competition, thereby gains advantages (such as economies of scale) that make it progressively more difficult for its competitors. So some regulation is needed to assure a relatively level playing field. One effect of such regulation is to dampen the tendency toward increased inequality.

Markets can function with maximum efficiency when there is a balance between supply and demand. That is, there are buyers for all the goods and services being produced. Progressives see, and conservatives ought to realize, that our present high levels of economic inequality undermine the efficient working of markets, because a large and growing segment of the population has been subjected to decades of stagnant or declining wages, while wealth has been steadily flowing to the richest among us. The bottom third of our population simply lacks the income to buy stuff. That’s why raising the minimum wage ought to be on the conservatives’ agenda.

In short, conservatives and progressives should be able to agree on the proposition that we need more equality. But don’t hold your breath.

impeachment unavoidable

John Peeler