Many conservatives have objected to the Occupy Movement’s focus on inequality by pointing to its refusal to offer an overarching analysis or slate of policies. This objection is, of course, hardly original to the movement’s conservative detractors. Indeed, even its most outspoken supporters have often lamented that Occupy lacks a coherent position and a decisive direction. Yet despite these and other obvious problems with the Occupy Movement, we should not be too quick to dismiss its criticisms of our contemporary economic circumstances.
We ought to ask of economics the same question of that we ask with regards to any other moral issue: how it fosters or frustrates human flourishing. So what then are we to make of our present economic system, one marked by—among other things—large inequalities of wealth? The answer, we believe, is that such inequality is both a symptom and a cause of great social harms. And whatever else may be true of it, the Occupy Movement gestures towards these serious problems in our present economy.
Today, some—but by no means all—on the right often imagine that contemporary inequalities of wealth result from the operation of some idealized conception of “capitalism” and the “free market.” The truth, however, is that America’s actual economy often is not very free at all. Since its earliest days and to an ever-increasing extent, our economy has been the marriage of big business and big government. For while the state has, through the widespread adoption of Keynesian policies, stabilized the economy from otherwise disastrous crises, it has also, more perniciously, systematically privileged employers over workers and large corporations over small businesses.
Consider the following examples. Patent and copyright laws, which inhibit entry into the market by competitors, contribute to unnaturally large accumulations of wealth on the part of patent or copyright holders. Moreover, transportation costs for big corporations are largely subsidized by the state. Our highway system, for instance, maintained through taxation, eliminates otherwise prohibitively large shipping costs for national and multinational corporations. Finally, corporate “personhood” combined with limited liabilities gives corporations advantages over small-scale businesses and encourages reckless economic behavior.
Wealth has become concentrated in the hands of the few (“the one percent”, if you will) at the expense of the many—at the expense, that is, of widespread economic freedom. For while our economy may have brought material welfare for some, it has, in Pope Leo XIII’s words, “laid a yoke almost of slavery on the unnumbered masses of non-owning workers.”
Great disparities in wealth are also great disparities in power. The vast degree of wealth in the hands of big business allows big business to take power to itself—not only regulatory capture and access to credit, but also purely economic influence and control over the market. This creates a lopsided power structure in which large corporations and their CEOs are able to accumulate more wealth and perpetuate inequality. And such inequalities negatively impact society in two broad ways.
First, power inequality harms civic friendship. As Aristotle writes in the Nicomachean Ethics, “if there is a great interval in respect of virtue or vice or wealth or anything else between the parties. . . . then they are no longer friends, and do not even expect to be so.” Aquinas too wrote that one way of noting the quality of friendships is to see how much friends have in common with one another, higher friendships necessarily involving those who have greater commonality.
Charles Murray’s research in Coming Apart supports the views of Aristotle and Aquinas. Here Murray points out that the vast material inequalities between the upper and lower classes have created vast cultural divisions too, one of the consequences of which is that friendship across classes has become less common. By severing the bonds of social solidarity, inequality stratifies society into income-classes that either come into conflict or remain hermetically sealed off from each other.
Inequality also leads to negative consequences in our physical, psychological, and social flourishing. In The Impact of Inequality, for instance, Richard Wilkinson provides extensive sociological evidence that increasing inequality in societies is linked to lower levels of trust among citizens, greater homicide rates, more discrimination against women and ethnic minorities, higher rates of anxiety and depression, shorter life expectancies, poorer access to healthcare and legal remedies for wrongs, and so on. Not only civic friendship, then, but also our basic personal wellbeing is at stake here. Behold the fruits of inequality, and judge accordingly.
These indeed are good reasons to be concerned with the inequality generated in America by the marriage of big business and big government. And while it may not offer a clear or effective remedy to these problems, the Occupy Movement ought to at least be commended for noting the existence of these injustices and attempting a social response. To accept that these problems are problems, of course, need not commit us to a socially liberal ethic; we can just as well realize their perversity by that line of economic thought running from Aristotle to Aquinas to Pope Leo XIII.
Michael W. Hannon studied philosophy, religion, and medieval studies at Columbia. David J. Pederson studies philosophy at Princeton. Peter A. Blair studies philosophy and government at Dartmouth.
David Mills, Occupy Wallstreet's Empy Anger
Edward Skidelsky, The Emancipation of Avarice