The New Inequality

The End of Equality

by Mickey Kaus
Basic Books (A New Republic Book), 293 pp., $25.00

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,…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.