Inequality and Politics

Commenting on Larry Bartels’ Unequal Democracy, Frank Pasquale writes:

We are frequently told that inequality–even the extreme growth in inequality witnessed over the past 30 years–is an inevitable concomitant of globalization, or is necessary for economic growth, or can’t be remedied by politics. Bartels’ work complements the growing consensus–led by people like David Cay Johnston, Jacob Hacker, Stephen Gosselin, Barbara Ehrenreich, among many others–that all these complacent contentions are not merely unsupported, but actually reverse the true causes and effects at work. Political change has accelerated US inequality–and only political change can address it.

I don’t know who Pasquale thinks he’s addressing. No one thinks we can’t use politics to redistribute our way to lower levels of income inequality. The question is: Why do this? What’s the problem to which this is the solution?

I feel like there is an unarticulated doing/allowing issue floating around in the background in this debate. Say the U.S. Congress cuts top tax rates. Is this politics causing higher inequality? Or is this evidence of relative indifference about allowing higher inequality? The left has the tendency to characterize every policy that might allow income inequality to rise as one intended specifically to have this result. This is a lot like the right’s characterizing, say, workplace safety regulation as a specific attempt to stymie the growth of small business. In each case, those opposed to a policy see its side-effects as more salient than the primary effects intended by those who favor it. Imputations of bad faith — “you’re really after the side-effect and your stated intention is garnish for malice” — are never far behind. Having read most of the recent left-leaning literature on the politics of rising inequality, it is disconcerting to see the argument from malicious bad faith as far and away the dominant narrative. It’s hard to find anyone who even tries to fairly understand the ideas behind the recent American right’s preference for policies that do in fact tend to allow greater income inequality. Am I wrong to find this pathetic?

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