Com­fort­able but en­vi­ous

San­ders fo­cuses less on em­pa­thy for the poor than on stok­ing the dis­con­tent of those who are en­vi­ous.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION - GE­ORGE F. WILL georgewill@wash­post.com

Amer­ica is more dis­tant from the 1933 be­gin­ning of the New Deal (82 years) than that be­gin­ning was from the 1865 end of the Civil War (68 years). Both episodes in­volved the na­tion’s un­der­stand­ing of equal­ity: The war af­firmed equal­ity of nat­u­ral rights, the New Deal ad­dressed un­equal so­cial con­di­tions. To­day’s Demo­cratic Party is frozen, like a fly in am­ber, in the New Deal pre­oc­cu­pa­tion — but with less ex­cuse than Democrats had dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion. The party be­lieves that eco­nomic in­equal­ity is an ur­gent prob­lem, and that its ur­gency should be un­der­stood in terms of huge dis­par­i­ties of wealth. Nei­ther propo­si­tion is (to use the term Jefferson used when he wrote equal­ity into Amer­ica’s cat­e­chism) a self-ev­i­dent truth.

The fun­da­men­tal pro­ducer of in­come in­equal­ity is free­dom. In­di­vid­u­als have dif­fer­ent ap­ti­tudes and at­ti­tudes. Not even uni­ver­sal free pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion, even were it well done, could equal­ize the abil­ity of in­di­vid­u­als to add value to the econ­omy. Be­sides, some peo­ple want to teach, oth­ers want to run hedge funds. In an open so­ci­ety, re­wards are set not by po­lit­i­cal power but by im­per­sonal mar­ket forces, the re­wards of which will dif­fer dra­mat­i­cally but usu­ally pre­dictably. Be­yond free­dom’s valu­able fe­cun­dity in pro­duc­ing un­equal so­cial out­comes, four other facets of to­day’s Amer­ica fuel in­equal­ity.

First, the en­ti­tle­ment state ex­ists pri­mar­ily to trans­fer wealth re­gres­sively, from the work­ing-age pop­u­la­tion to the re­tired el­derly who, af­ter a life­time of ac­cu­mu­la­tion, are the wealth­i­est age co­hort. Sec­ond, big, reg­u­la­tory gov­ern­ment in­her­ently ex­ac­er­bates in­equal­ity be­cause it in­evitably serves the strong — those suf­fi­ciently ed­u­cated, af­flu­ent, ar­tic­u­late and con­fi­dent to in­flu­ence the ad­min­is­tra­tive state’s myr­iad re­dis­tribu­tive ac­tions.

Third, seven years of ZIRP — ze­roin­t­er­est-rate pol­icy — have not re­stored the eco­nomic dy­namism es­sen­tial for so­cial mo­bil­ity but have had the in­tended ef­fect of driv­ing liq­uid­ity into eq­ui­ties in search of high yields, thereby en­rich­ing the 10 per­cent of Amer­i­cans who own ap­prox­i­mately 80 per­cent of the di­rectly owned stocks. Also, by mak­ing big gov­ern­ment in­ex­pen­sive, low in­ter­est rates ex­ac­er­bate the po­lit­i­cal class’s peren­nial dis­po­si­tion to­ward deficit spend­ing. And lit­tle of the 2016 fed­eral bud­get’s $283 bil­lion for debt ser­vice will flow to in­di­vid­u­als earn­ing less than the me­dian in­come.

Fourth, fam­ily dis­in­te­gra­tion crip­ples the pri­mary trans­mit­ter of so­cial cap­i­tal — the habits, mores, cus­toms and dis­po­si­tions nec­es­sary for seiz­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties. When 72 per­cent of African Amer­i­can chil­dren and 53 per­cent of His­panic chil­dren are born to un­mar­ried women, and 40 per­cent of all births are to un­mar­ried women, and a ma­jor­ity of all moth­ers un­der 30 are not liv­ing with the fa­thers of their chil­dren, the con­se­quences for the life chances, and life­time earn­ings, of mil­lions of chil­dren are enor­mous.

Sen. Bernie San­ders (I-Vt.) is do­ing well, if not good, by re­duc­ing the de­bate about equal­ity to re­sent­ment of large for­tunes. He should read Harry G. Frank­furt’s new book “On In­equal­ity.” It is so short (89 pages) that even a peri­patetic can­di­date can read it, and so lu­cid that he can­not miss its in­con­ve­nient point: “It is mis­guided to en­dorse eco­nomic egal­i­tar­i­an­ism as an au­then­tic moral ideal.”

Frank­furt, a Prince­ton pro­fes­sor of phi­los­o­phy emer­i­tus, ar­gues that eco­nomic in­equal­ity is not in­her­ently morally ob­jec­tion­able. “To the ex­tent that it is truly un­de­sir­able, it is on ac­count of its al­most ir­re­sistible ten­dency to gen­er­ate un­ac­cept­able in­equal­i­ties of other kinds.” Th­ese can in­clude ac­cess to elite ed­u­ca­tion, po­lit­i­cal in­flu­ence and other non­triv­ial mat­ters. But Frank­furt’s al­ter­na­tive to eco­nomic egal­i­tar­i­an­ism is the “doc­trine of suf­fi­ciency,” which is that the moral im­per­a­tive should be that ev­ery­one have enough.

The pur­suit of in­creased eco­nomic equal­ity might, but need not, serve the ethic of suf­fi­ciency. And this pur­suit might dis­tract peo­ple from un­der­stand­ing, and find­ing sat­is­fac­tion with, “what is needed for the kind of life a per­son would most sen­si­bly and ap­pro­pri­ately seek.” This has noth­ing to do with “the quan­tity of money that other peo­ple hap­pen to have.” Frank­furt ar­gues that “do­ing worse than oth­ers does not en­tail do­ing badly.” And an ob­ses­sion with oth­ers’ resources “con­trib­utes to the moral dis­ori­en­ta­tion and shal­low­ness of our time.”

San­ders fo­cuses less on em­pa­thy for the poor than on stok­ing the dis­con­tent of those who are com­fort­able but en­vi­ous. They will ul­ti­mately be dis­com­fited by the fact that envy is the only one of the seven deadly sins that does not give the sin­ner even mo­men­tary plea­sure. For­tu­nately, for most Amer­i­cans, believ­ing in equal­ity sim­ply means believ­ing that ev­ery­one is at least as good as ev­ery­one else.

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