Inequality And The Right


It's a subject that lies behind many of my readers' dissents from my small government, flat, simple taxation kind of conservatism. In Wisconsin, for example, it is impossible, I think, to separate the issues of public sector collective bargaining rights ... and the broader context of a country polarized into two camps: the very, very rich, and everyone else. This is expecially true after the bank bailouts. There is a strong argument that bailing out the banks was the right, if distasteful, thing to do because of the threat their collapse would have had on the entire economy. But watching Wall Street rack up bonuses, carry on as normal, while teachers are being asked to take big benefit cuts ... well, it's understandable why even level-headed Wisconsinites look a little Jacobin these days.

To many on the right, this inequality is a non-issue, and in an abstract sense, I agree. Penalizing people for their success does not help the less successful. But at a time of real sacrifice, it does seem to me important for conservatives not to ignore the dangers of growing and vast inequality - for political, not economic, reasons. And by political, I don't mean partisan. I mean a genuine concern for the effects of an increasingly unequal society. Last night, we watched "Winter's Bone" about meth-fueled social collapse in the heartland and then clicked over to watch "The Real Housewives Of Orange County." It was a bracing summary of where America increasingly finds itself. If you find this growing gulf unproblematic, I refer you to that leftist radical, Aristotle:

"It is clear then both the best partnership in a state is the one which operates through the middle people, and also that those states in which the middle element is large, and stronger if possible than the other two together, or at any rate stronger than either of them alone, have every chance of having a well-run constitution."

By "middle element," Aristotle means the middle class. The loss of it has destabilizing political consequences. Now, some of this may be unavoidable, given a globalized and increasingly automated economy. But it increasingly seems wrong to me to exempt the very wealthy from sacrifice, in the context of their gains in the last three decades, if we are to ask it of everyone else.

It's not about fairness. It isn't even really about redistribution, as we once understood that from the hard left. It's about political stability and cohesion and coherence. Without a large and strong middle class, we can easily become more divided, more bitter and more unstable. Concern about that is a legitimate conservative issue. And if someone on the right does not find a way to address it, someone on the left may well be empowered to over-reach.