We have become obsessed with economic equality at the expense of economic growth. Inequality is said to be the transcendent issue of our time. Yet a society that is rich and unequal still beats one that is poor and equal any day of the week.
I don’t know about “transcendent,” but it sure is ubiquitous, at least. I long ago passed through the semantic satiation stage; now, I think I’m in the learned helplessness phase, where I can’t even react to the pain of hearing progressives yammering incessantly and nonsensically about income inequality; I just lie on the floor of my cage and tremble and whimper as if there’s no escape.
In slogan form, the argument often takes shape as a distinction between equality of opportunity versus equality of outcome. Exasperated, progressives will retort that they’re not demanding equality of outcome; it’s just that there’s no true equality of opportunity as long as there is structural inequality, i.e. privilege. Many will approvingly quote Anatole France’s famous snark about how the law, in its majestic equality, forbids both rich and poor to sleep under bridges and steal loaves of bread. Dig, if you will, the picture of society engaged in a race. The progressive perspective is that “equality of opportunity” still allows too many people to have a significant, even insurmountable, head start through “unearned” advantages. The only way the race can be made truly fair is to bring everyone back to the same starting line. Of course, doing so would entail the very same socioeconomic leveling that progressives insist they’re not aiming for. Equality of outcome by a different name — imposing it “before” rather than “after” the race. And let’s be honest — assuming such “true” equality of opportunity was even achievable, why would you fire the starting pistol and allow the same old inequalities to begin asserting themselves again? Are we supposed to believe that our former devotees of equality, possessing the power to eliminate disparities, would suddenly just shrug their shoulders and say, “Well, we ensured absolutely fair starting conditions, so it’s all up to individual skill and desire now. Whatever happens, happens. Let the best man win.”?
William Voegeli accurately noted that no matter how much the welfare state continues to grow (even under Republican administrations), progressives always insist it’s never enough. More specifically, they never make any attempt to quantify what “enough” might finally look like, or how we would recognize it when we get there. How much GDP is the redistributive state entitled to consume? How many new programs do we need? At what point might we factor in that human beings are never satisfied and always complaining no matter what? A cynic might suspect that such vagueness is the entire point, that it’s all about procuring blank checks and ever-increasing administrative power for you and your party by constantly stoking and inflaming moral outrage. No, it’s not that there’s a danger of progressives actually gaining enough power and ability to eliminate all the privileges and talents that give some people an automatic head start in life; it’s that to the extent that such ahistorical fantasies are relentlessly pursued by people too stupid to recognize them as fantasies, they can still cause an awful lot of damage.