Consumption Junction, What's Your Function?

by Reihan

This'll be quick.

It often seems as though right-wingers are trying to make light of inequality by pointing to consumption inequality, and that left-winger take inequality seriously by zeroing in on income and wealth inequality as meaningful metrics. I think, emphasis on think, that this is the wrong way of looking at things.

In The End of Equality, Mickey Kaus drew an insightful contrast between "Money Liberals," focused on income and wealth, and "Civic Liberals," focused on our shared institutions. His basic take was that while money inequality was a lost cause, we could create excellent schools and an excellent public healthcare system that all would be proud to use. These institutions, in turn, would serve as engines of mobility and opportunity. It's an attractive vision, though I can't say that it's my own. I suppose I'm more skeptical about the ability of even the best-run bureaucracies to adapt to fast-changing circumstances. But Kaus's framework is worth keeping in mind.

What exactly are the consumptionists telling us? My sense is that they are telling us that material deprivation isn't a pressing problem in the United States. This point, very narrowly understood, isn't very controversial. But it also doesn't establish that inequality is not a problem. Far from it. Consider the ever-present danger that a wealthy elite will use its disproportionate political power to entrench its privilege. Though I'm pretty optimistic about American life, and though I cheer lustily for the market economy, it seems clear to me that something like this state of affairs already exists. Of course, my view is a little idiosyncratic, e.g., I tend to see things like, say, the tobacco settlement or a cap-and-trade system or Wal-Mart agitating for ostensibly "progressive" labor market regulations as examples of this kind of oligarchic self-dealing, etc. Other views can just as easily fit this framework. Inequality isn't a problem because the hell of Anglo-Saxon capitalism is leading to people dying on their feet: it could be a problem "merely" because it corrupts our democratic institutions, a corruption that has corrosive effects on our life chances. That is, Money Liberalism could be an essential instrument for achieving Civic Liberalism.

Again, I don't actually think this view is right, but it's at least somewhat persuasive, which is more than can be said of the view that the economic immiseration of half or a third of Americans is the central fact of our time. When we talk about the problems stemming from inequality, we're being very imprecise: we usually have in mind problems stemming from a lack of social cohesion, and more specifically from the proliferation of disrupted families. Now I'll repeat, for the umpteenth time, way more money!" Well, it's not so much that our problems are bigger as that our problems are different. That was something I gleaned from Judith Shklar's  American Citizenship: The Quest for Inclusion, though I'd hardly be surprised if Shklar is rolling in her grave over the fact that I've claimed her in this small way. It also makes me wary of, say, a "Marshall Plan for the cities." Cultural capital can't be bought; it needs to be rebuilt, slowly, and there are good reasons to believe that this is exactly what's happening in many historically excluded communities.

The upshot of all this is that conservatives have, or rather conservatives should have, important and interesting things to say on these subjects. But the argument from consumptionism, sound as it may be, is only a first step.