Since the first of the year I’ve been working to catch up. A friend had sent a useful article by Chrystia Freeland, ” The Self-Destruction of the 1 Percent ,” and I finally got around to clicking through and reading it.
Freeland has an interesting story to tell about Venice. The city went from a vibrant, growing culture to one dominated by an oligarchy that slowly sucked the vitality of what in the late middle ages was the most wealthy and powerful city in Europe. Her concern is that the growing divide between the super-rich in America and everybody else may lead us to evolve in the same direction.
Inequality, of course, has always been with us. Freeland quotes a letter from Thomas Jefferson that expresses the usual American delusions about equality. Freeland accepts Jefferson’s self-deceptions, writing, “In the early 19th century, the United States was one of the most egalitarian societies on the planet.” Huh? Have we airbrushed chattel slavery out of our historical imaginations. Yes, today there are billionaires in New York who live according to very different rules than everybody else, but it’s hard to see how today is less egalitarian than early 19th century Virginia and the tens of thousands of men and women then in slavery.
That said, Freeland and others are right to worry about the divide between the super-rich and everybody else. She gives proper credit to Charles Murray’s observations about the way in which the rich have abandoned moral leadership, or more accurately have developed an esoteric morality for their children (“healthy choices”) while promoting moral relativism (“inclusion”) for everybody else. And she’s right that globalization has created new paths to wealth for some while shutting down the old paths to middle class prosperity for many.
There are two basic intuitions about what to do about our present inequality, intuitions that have been around for a long time.
One is to use government to level things out and put people into roughly the same material circumstances, or at least less disparate ones. The cultural revolution in China during the 1960s was a particularly radical and brutal version of this strategy. Stiff taxes and generous redistribution, a public health care system that prohibits private insurance, regulations requiring open access to elite colleges and universities, are of course far less destructive but reflect a similar impulse.
The other is to emphasize the bonds of solidarity that transcend inequalities. Patriotism is a good example. Downton Abbey has a season of shows set during World War I. During those shows the distance between top and bottom of society is by no means eliminated, but it was in a real way bridged, at least emotionally, and with lasting consequences for political culture. Religion is another bond that transcends. In more modest ways dignified public spaces create solidarity. Everybody from the rich Westchester commuter to the working stiff heading to the subway is uplifted while walking through Grand Central Station. It’s a luxury we hold in common.
I’m not opposed to moderate redistribution and other uses of government to limit the distance at which the super-rich live from everybody else. That’s one reason I’m opposed to the sale of human organs and other market “solutions” to scarce health resources. It’s one thing for the rich to enjoy a radically different kind of luxury; private jets and so forth. It’s another for them to have radically different kinds of health options. But I’m not optimistic about the results of this strategy. Looking at history, redistribution and the use of government to suppress inequalities hasn’t done much to build up social solidarity. On the contrary, when pressed too far it rends the fabric of society.
We need to give more attention to the transcending bonds of solidarity. Sadly, the multi-cultural agenda has undermined the pedagogy of patriotism in many schools. There’s no reason we can’t have an affirmative American pluralism rather than the critical one that often dominates, the one that points out America’s failures rather than successes. And of course our elite culture is very nervous about religion—a lost opportunity for solidarity. Ash Wednesday is a great day of equality: from dust you have come, and to dust you shall return.
We also need to give more attention to public space and the need to create an environment in which everybody is lifted up and we share in the achievements of our society. The old Penn Station in New York was a good example. The poorest travelers passed through a building fit for kings. Today’s Penn Station? Banality and ugliness, which is why anyone with money hurries to a private club, exclusive hotel, or upscale restaurant. One success in New York has been the investment in revitalizing and expanding public spaces and parks over the last two decades. Central Park, the High Line, Riverside Park: these are supremely luxurious places that we all share.
To my mind shared public commitments and spaces are more powerful expressions of solidarity (which is what most people want when they express worries about inequality) than tax increases or wealth redistribution, however necessary or justified the latter may be. Freeland’s has the right sorts of concerns, and what we need is a greater sense of shared common identity and shared public goods.