Inequality and democracy

Thomas Piketty, author of Capital in the 21st Century, believes that inequality undermines democracy in the literal sense—that is government of, by, and for the people. Those who struggle to make ends meet have scant resources or time to change the political and economic systems for their benefit. The rich, on the other hand, have surpluses galore, enough to buy politicians. So, instead of democracy we have a plutocracy.

For Crooked Timber, philosopher Chris Bertram writes:

Piketty fears that given rising levels of wealth inequality, democracy is doomed. People will not tolerate high levels of inequality forever, and repressing their resistance to an unequal social order will eventually require dispensing with democratic forms. I’m not so sure. A highly unequal society in wealth and income is certainly incompatible with a society of equal citizens, standing in relations of equal respect to one another and satisfying their amour propre, their craving for recognition though a sense of shared citizenship. (This benign outcome roughly corresponds to the Rawlsian ideal of a well-ordered society where the social bases of self-respect are in place.) But the outward form of democracy, its procedures, are surely compatible with great inequality, just so long as the wealthy can construct a large enough electoral coalition to win or can ensure that the median voter is the kind of “aspirational” person who identifies with the one per cent, even though they are not of it. In an unequal society such people are very common. They may be very poor compared to the super-rich, but they have just enough to take pride in their status as members of “hard working families” and to hope for the lucky break that will elevate them. At the same time they can look down with contempt on the welfare claimant and the “illegal” immigrant, nurturing their own amour propre by taking satisfaction in what they are not. Here we have, in another guise, the phenomenon of the “poor white” who looks down on poorer blacks and is thereby impelled to sustain a hierarchical social order. Procedural democracy limping on against a background of inequality, disdain and humiliation is not an attractive prospect, but it is already a big part of our present and may be the whole of our future unless egalitarian politics can be revived.

A few years ago I commented, albeit indirectly, on Rousseau’s notion of amour propre, in particular the “aspirational person,” mentioned by Bertram. In my sometimes provocative tone, I wrote:

Republicans, by the way, and especially their most recent incarnation, are generally selfish bastards who operate behind the “veil of opulence.” They may not be all One-percenters, but they certainly aspire to be one. As I recall Archie Bunker saying, taxing the rich removes his incentive to one day join their ranks.

The “veil of opulence,” a term used by philosopher Benjamin Hale, prevents many of us from recognizing that we are all products of accidental circumstances and that fortune, or fate, can dictate good and bad outcomes. Hale:

Those who don the veil of opulence may imagine themselves to be fantastically wealthy movie stars or extremely successful business entrepreneurs. They vote and set policies according to this fantasy. “If I were such and such a wealthy person,” they ask, “how would I feel about giving X percentage of my income, or Y real dollars per year, to pay for services that I will never see nor use?”

In his essay, Bertram invokes John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, as I have on several occasions (e.g., here). Rawls spoke of an “original position” and a “veil of ignorance.” He asked how we might decide to, among other things, distribute precious goods and services if we were ignorant of our original position, whether we were born rich or poor, black or white, tall or short, and so on. Given the possibility that our original position was comparatively worse than others, would we not, for example, ensure that economic security was guaranteed for all? Here’s how I put it back in 2012:

Americans, in particular, approach the fundamental challenge in an entirely different fashion, behind a “veil of opulence.” Instead of exploring an “original position” in which we are ignorant of our own circumstances, we imagine ourselves to be the next Bill Gates or a rich hedge-fund manager. We replace ignorance with aspiration. If the goal is to become that wealthy individual, how might we go about achieving it? Moreover, if we assume that we are privileged, how do we answer questions about efficient or equitable taxation? Would I prefer a smaller government, one less intrusive and, therefore, less capable of impeding my personal aggrandizement? What would I think of the poor, the infirm, the “lesser mortals” who demand much but contribute little?

Democracy, beyond its procedural aspects, demands that a sufficient percentage of the populace feels that they are in life together, that my needs and wants and even dreams are broadly shared. Just reciting the Pledge of Allegiance or singing the Star Spangled Banner in a group does not make us a community. Rousseau, in his Social Contract, put it thusly:

…the general will, if it be deserving of its name, must be general, not in its origins only, but in its objects [my emphasis], applicable to all as well as operated by all, and that it loses its natural validity as soon as it is concerned to achieve a merely individual and limited end, since, in that case, we, pronouncing judgment on something outside ourselves, cease to be possessed of that true principle of equity which is our guide.

We’ve got a lot of work to do.