The End of Equality
The End of Equality is a strange book. It sets out a program for the Democratic Party to run on and win back the White House, but it is written with a sneering hostility that is more likely to raise hackles than change minds. Kaus, an editor of The New Republic, lauds the politics of what he calls “Civic Equality”; citizens should respect one another as citizens, acknowledge one another as political equals, and treat one another with respect, regardless of differences in wealth, income, brains, or good looks.
Yet he writes with continuous contempt for his opponents—the people he calls “Money Liberals,” and blames for making politics a battle over income redistribution, and creating a dependent underclass with their welfare policies. George McGovern and Edward Kennedy are labeled as politicians of this stripe, as is Governor Clinton. Prominent academic defenders of the heresy are said to include Robert Kuttner, Marian Wright Edelman, and John Kenneth Galbraith. Nor does Kaus just treat them like idiots. Confronting the claim of Barbara Ehrenreich and Frances Fox Piven that only a small minority of welfare mothers stay on welfare for any length of time Kaus retorts, “That’s a lie,” even though his footnotes acknowledge that the statistics are open to interpretation.
Kaus appeals to R.H. Tawney’s wonderful Equality as a guide to the kind of society he has in mind, but Tawney’s book was written by a social democratic saint, whose unforced affection for ordinary working-class Englishmen shines through every page. Kaus’s pages breathe a punitive spirit throughout. He may think high-pitched acrimony is needed to get a hearing, but it’s hard to imagine anyone ending The End of Equality actually liking its author. Nor do his tactics seem particularly well-judged. His views are often no more than an angrier version of Clinton’s Putting People First. It is Clinton who says, “We must reward work, demand responsibility and end welfare as we know it,” and continues,
We will empower people on welfare with the education, training and child care they need for up to two years so they can break the cycle of dependency. After that, those who can work will have to go to work, either by taking a job in the private sector or through community service.
Mr. Kaus does not want to be nice. He wants to grab us by the ear and tell us what he has discovered. His ideas are not novel—his views about work and citizenship were shared by Rousseau in the 1760s, his welfare proposals resemble the New Poor Law that the British devised in 1834, and his views about the virtues of conscription are those of nineteenth-century democrats like John Stuart Mill—but they are none the worse for that, and the question of their applicability to the late twentieth century is a fascinating one.
Kaus’s discovery is that “income equality”—he means a modest redistribution of income—is not only deficient as a moral ideal; it is impossible to achieve without destroying American prosperity, and it is so divisive that the Democratic Party will remain out of power so long as it espouses it. He argues that income equality is in any case less important than people suppose; the nastier features of Reagan-Bush America owe little to income inequality, and almost everything to the erosion of “civic equality.” Civic equality is an equality of respect not money; it is what citizens receive when they take part in
components of our community life such as the public schools, libraries, highways, parks and the military draft. Each of these institutions attempts to treat all citizens, rich and poor, with equal dignity. They are especially valuable parts of the public sphere because, in contrast with the rather formal and abstract equality of voting, they require rich and poor to actually rub shoulders with one another as equals. So do many other, less obvious but important institutions such as museums and post offices, even parades and softball leagues.
The erosion of civic equality has only a weak connection with income inequality, but a strong connection with the erosion of this public sphere; it has several causes, some identified by Robert B. Reich in his account of the flight of the rich to isolated enclaves of privilege, others visible to anyone who walks through city streets made repellent by the homeless, and dangerous by the violent and antisocial young. Still other causes are connected with these by way of the decline of urban public schools as their better students vanish to the suburbs and their worse students turn them into battlefields. Repairs to the public sphere must be applied where the problem lies—to the decay of citizenship, to the loss of the public sphere, and to increased class hostility. On all these things Kaus writes with raw cleverness, many statistics—his extended notes are persuasive and less raucous than his text—and not much imagination. Imagination matters.
It is no news that equality is a slippery concept. It seems both to be very important and of no value at all. Twelve hungry kids at a birthday party will kick up a frightful fuss if the cake isn’t divided into twelve equal slices; and a hungry steelworker will kick up a frightful fuss if he and his six-year-old daughter get equal helpings at dinner. In social policy, the crucial question is whether we care about inequality or about poverty, ill-health, and misery as such. When a homeless man sleeps on the sidewalk outside an apartment building where the cheapest flat costs a million and a half dollars, are we outraged at the fact that he has nowhere to live or at the contrast between his misery and the apartment owner’s affluence? Well—would it be a better world if the apartment owner lost his flat and became homeless too, and nothing else changed?
Kaus follows the logic of this thought experiment. It is the absolute misery of the poor we really want to cure. Why then do so many of us think that the contrast is disgusting as well? Some people don’t, but Kaus is enough of an egalitarian to think that it is. Kaus returns what looks like the right answer. We mind inequalities that devalue the less well favored, and not others. My Subaru costs a fifth the price of your Lexus, but it gets me home as soon; it may be less comfortable and quick, but we are both subject to the same vagaries of fate, traffic cops, or road congestion. Both of us, unequally wheeled as we are, know we are better off than when we rode bikes.
Inequality in car ownership doesn’t leak into the social rankings on which our self-respect depends, in spite of the best efforts of the advertisers. The same is true for a surprisingly large range of incomes. Americans who can say of themselves “we are a hard-working, self-supporting family” have been undeferential toward wealth and social position. Whether a New York immigration officer ever did cross out “Peer of the Realm” on a visiting Englishman’s landing card and substitute the word “unemployed” may be doubted; but it is only an American immigration officer that you could imagine doing it.
Kaus claims that true American egalitarianism is not financial but social and political. Money matters only when it corrodes social and political equality. Unlike Rousseau in the 1760s and Daniel Bell in the 1970s,1 Kaus sees no connection between capitalism and moral decay. We can insulate civic equality from financial in-equality; we can draft rich and poor, mix them in the public schools, lure them into the same libraries, and involve them in a common local government. This is fortunate because it has always been hard to achieve income equality, and it is going to become harder still.
At this point problems arise, because Kaus turns the argument into a battle of absolutes—money equality versus civic equality, and the politics of money liberalism versus the politics of civic liberalism—what is really a debate among nuances. Almost nobody has ever argued in favor of absolute economic equality.2 Those who came close, such as Rousseau and other eighteenth-century radicals, did so to preserve civic equality; conversely, Kaus’s proposals for the restoration of civic equality require expenditures on schools, public works, a health service, and elections that involve a vast redistribution of income.
The simplest parts of his case are fine. The first is that income inequality in the US is by some measures less now than in the 1940s—then there was a great bunching of incomes low on the scale, while now there is a wider spread across the spectrum. Kaus acknowledges that on other understandings of equality, this is a more unequal distribution—there are more people “further” from the person at the middle of the scale. But the fact that we can so readily argue about whether we have “really” become more or less equal in money income is enough to suggest that our discontents aren’t the effect of greater income inequality.
His second persuasive claim is that we cannot have general prosperity without capitalism, and we cannot have a capitalist economy without unequal rewards. Like a good follower of F.K. Hayek, he observes that capitalism is driven by luck, and that entrepreneurial success is sufficiently undeserved that nobody with any self-respect need feel affronted by the success of others. Just from watching life around them, people know that the ability to make a lot of money need not entail other virtues. He makes little of this point, but it is crucial. The more people see success as the luck of the draw, the less they resent it. They envy the lucky, but they do not resent them. This certainly goes for athletes, probably for entrepreneurs—and much less so for bumbling vice-presidents. Americans want equal opportunity but are not anticapitalist; they want a ticket for the capitalist lottery, but know that winning is largely a matter of chance.
All this is fairly commonplace, but its bearings on the pursuit of greater income equality are debatable. Certainly, one might think that if Americans are generally unbothered about income differentials—and Kaus quotes the familiar statistic that only 29 percent of Americans think the government ought to reduce inequality, as against 64 percent of the British and 83 percent of the Italians—it might make it a less urgent goal than the things the public minds about, such as guaranteed health care. The more general consideration is that if capitalism works by dangling the prospect of high prizes in front of potential entrepreneurs, there is presumably some limit to the amount of redistribution that can take place before such incentives cease to work. Where it lies remains obscure however. Many of the countries whose investment rates are double or triple those of the US are high-tax countries with expensive comprehensive welfare programs. At present, we simply do not know how far post-tax inequality can be eroded before entrepreneurial energy is stifled, though we may guess that it will vary from one country to another and will change over the years in any one society.
Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (Basic Books, 1976).↩
Edward Bellamy's Looking Back-ward (1888) is a rare exception; its authoritarian and military tone is oddly like Kaus's.↩