George Will wrote a recent piece for the Washington Post about inequality and the Sanders campaign. In it he claims that “the fundamental producer of inequality is freedom.” Arguing this allows him to make the argument that the public outcry against current inequality levels is often just a matter of envy. Then, referring to Harry Frankfurt, Will claims that “economic inequality is not inherently morally objectionable.”
I think Will is wrong about inequality, though the claim above is carefully constructed to obscure the problem.
First, making a claim about the fact of economic inequality doesn’t really hold water. Economic inequality is not a result of mere happenstance. It is necessarily related to economic systems, political structures, and cultural determinations of value, without which it would not occur. So while it’s possible to make abstract statements about the occurrence of inequality, such statements are only coherent if placed within an understanding of how wealth is accumulated in the first place. For example, if it is the case that wealth is created by workers who do not proportionately benefit from their own increasing surplus value, but rather whose value makes for increasing wealth for owners alone, then the resulting wealth inequality is morally problematic. Wealth doesn’t exist in a vacuum and therefore economic inequality is never an isolated phenomenon. That is to say, one can only remark upon the morality of economic inequality in reference to the creation of it. While I have no doubt envy can play a role in outcry against inequality, this point cannot be overlooked.
Second, at least in our current set up, and this is probably true in some sense for nearly any set up, money is power. This problem is one in which economic inequality has a direct relationship to other forms of inequality. To his credit, Will acknowledges problems of this kind, but he never addresses this most egregious one. Not only are people with significant wealth able to bend the criminal justice system (better representation, etc.), they are also (especially post-Citizens United) able to disproportionately affect governance. Given its rather direct influence on policy and elections, massive wealth unsettles the “one person, one vote”, “equal protection,” and “equal representation” commitments necessary to democracy.
Finally, nodding at a point Michael Sandel and others have made, massive inequality undermines social solidarity. Democracy is dependent upon people sharing in, at least in part, a common life. Massive inequality allows for some to live so separate from so many others, so distant from the anxieties and realities of the rest that it undermines the solidarity necessary for democratic life. This point directly contradicts Will’s strong claim above, at least insofar as it occurs in a democratic society.
For all the reasons above, economic inequality, at least of the extreme sort we see now in the US, is morally problematic because it (often) results from alienated labor, has disproportionate political power, and undermines social solidarity. What is even more concerning is that these three concerns in some ways cause and are exacerbated by one another, complicating and worsening the situation by virtue of their relationship.