Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Political Philosophy

Income Inequality and Justice

Hunter Baker gives us a thoughtful and concise reflection on the meaning of justice when it comes to recognizing income inequality.  People get confused about the meaning of justice in this regard because our every instinct tells us that justice must be a form of equality.  And it is.  But what kind of equality?  When we are children, for example, getting your "fair share" of the M&Ms means you get the same number (and I mean, exactly the same number!) as your sister gets.  That's clear enough.  But life gets more complicated than that when we move past candy.  What does equal justice mean with respect to work and income?  To what should your income be equal?  Should it be equal to your sister's income?  Equal to your effort?  Equal to the results you produce?  Equal to the value your employer places upon it?  Baker gives us a good tutorial on the subject that invites further reflection or, as the case may be, a re-adjustment in your point of view.

Discussions - 9 Comments

"On that basis, the rich man will still pay far more than a poor one, but the same rule will have applied to each man. And is that not the very definition of justice?"

Briefly, I think that's one of the major criticisms of the growing income inequality in the United States—that, frequently, the rich get to have a different set of rules made and applied to them than everybody else, and that the growing inequality, combined with decisions like Citizens United, exacerbates that particular problem. By this definition, the growing inequality actually is corrosive to society and the body politic.

One other thought: The rise of income inequality has been accompanied by a decrease in social mobility in the United States over the last 30 years. The rules have been re-arranged so that rich people stay rich—and, as evidenced by the bank bailouts, get to stay rich even when they calamitously screw up—and the poor stay poor. It wasn't ever thus; the current state of things isn't necessarily the *natural* state of things. Justice can be measured in a lot of ways, but I don't think Baker's attempt provides the answer he thinks it does.

Joel, the point you make about bail-outs is actually right on. If people expect to benefit from speculation, then they should be prepared to be wiped out when it fails. Live by the market, live with the "real" impact of its functioning.

This study directly contradicts your claims:
http://www.taxfoundation.org/files/sr180.pdf

Between 1999 and 2007:

Nearly 60 percent of taxpayers moved up from the bottom quintile.

Nearly 40 percent of taxpayers moved down from the top quintile.

Nearly 60 percent of taxpayers are in a different
quintile in 2007 than they were in 1999.

Roughly half of all American millionaires were millionaires for only one year between 1999 and 2007.

Only 6 percent were millionaires for all nine years.

This is certainly not to defend bank bailouts, but I'd be surprised if anyone who blogs here are in favor of those.

Hunter: Thanks for your gracious response. I do think there are places where the egalitarian left and the free market right can make common cause, and that might be one of them.

John: I'll refer you to this report from the Pew Charitable Trusts.

http://www.economicmobility.org/assets/pdfs/EMP%20American%20Dream%20Report.pdf

To summarize: Most Americans remain in the class they were born in. That wasn't so bad when a middle-class American could earn more than their father did at the same point in life—but that's no longer true. That would be understandable if the economy had stopped growing, but it didn't! All the gains went to the rich! There's not much mobility out of class, and there's backwards mobility compared to the previous generations.

I'm not a socialist. I don't think income should be distributed equally. But I do have a sense that non-rich Americans aren't participating in the wealth gains that have come about, in part, because of their increased productivity. And this state of affairs roughly coincides with the Reagan-PostReagan era.

Today I learned this about The Tax Foundation:

"In 1989, Citizens for a Sound Economy, a conservative group founded and funded by the owners of Koch Industries, purchased the Tax Foundation,[14] which continued to operate it as a subsidiary until its spin-off into Americans for Prosperity in 2005."

Can the right and its "grassroots" tea partiers do anything these days without funding or input from the brothers Koch?

Also, better charts here:
http://motherjones.com/politics/2011/02/income-inequality-in-america-chart-graph

*gasp* Oh, no, the Koch brothers! http://www.slate.com/id/2286169/pagenum/all/#p2

Can the left and its "grassroots" protesters do anything these days without funding or imput from public employees' unions?

Well there is George Soros...

So, John, the Koch brothers are radical libertarians. How very comforting.

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