Blog #81b: Inequality: What’s the Answer? Economic or Racial? Conservative or Liberal-Clinton?


Blog #81b: What’s the Answer? Economic or Racial? Conservative or Liberal?

The debate on the Democratic side in the United States election campaign has seemed at times to be between  answers addressing, on the one said , economic inequality (held to be Bernie Sanders view) and on the other, racial and ethnic disparities (Black Lives Matter often taken to hold that view, and Hillary Clinton’s frequent emphasis). The answer of course depends on the analysis of the problem. If the suggestion of Blog #81a is accepted, that the key definition of unjust inequality, defined in the economic terms of wealth and income, lies in whether or not it arises from the economic, political, and social relations of exploitation and oppression within the society, then that analysis might be applied as well to the issue of unjust non-economic inequalities between black and white, “native” born and immigrant, men and women, religious majorities and minorities, non-conformists generally.

In fact, relations of exploitation and oppression, economic and non-economic inequality, are historically opposite sides of the same coin. As to “race,” slavery of course combined both oppression with exploitation; the attitudes to immigrants does so as well, if in different legal and social ways. The clear disparities in women’s and men’s wages are linked to patterns of sexist treatment that is both economic  and social/cultural,  and patterns of social behavior , such as are embodied in religious codes as well as sexual and gender-related attitudes, play a role in supporting economic structures  as well.[1]

In looking for answers, then, for concrete policies, programs, strategies to rectify these twin economic and non-economic problems, the key is to understand them as linked, parts of a single pattern, and examine proposed answers with those linkages I mind.  Looking at the details of conservative as opposed to liberal as opposed to radical current answers illustrates the point.

The conservative response is that inequality should not be a concern.. Conservatives essentially see economic inequalities as both inevitable and necessary. They defend quantitative inequality because greater wealth or income is the result of differences in effort or ability, or a reward for innovation and hard work; end inequality, and you take away the incentives for an individual to work hard and use the abilities they have to contribute to prosperity and growth. The poor are poor because they have lesser abilities, and it is only poverty or its threat that makes them enter the labor market at all, where they are needed to do the unskilled work that needs to be done. If the market at any point requires less unskilled work  than there are  unskilled workers, that’s too bad, but charity requires that they not be left to starve to death on the streets, but they should not be helped to such an extent that their incentive to work disappears. Inequality is thus the inevitable accompaniment of different natural capabilities, and enforcing equality unfairly penalizes those with greater capabilities, who deserve to have more than less capable others.

For conservatives economic inequalities are  directly linked to and justified by non-economic inequalities: lesser pay for  women explained by sexist views of their work, lower pay for African-Americans by weaker work habits or value  systems, unconcern for living wages for  immigrants by  a logical market reaction to their greater “willingness ” to accept work undesired by natives. Other non-economic inequalities arise from differences in treatment that are experienced as oppressive and painful by African-Americans , women (both married and unmarried, n different and overlapping ways), LGBT individuals, foreigners speaking other languages as their native tongue, some artists, non-conformity of all sorts, are admittedly unequal in the conservative view, but the difference is explained as a matter of voluntary  choice of life style, and Its solution is simply adaptation by those subject to harm to more dominant patterns of behavior. Those not conforming to middle-class values in their behavior are not entitled to claims for equal treatment, and may be forcibly repressed, through police action and incarceration, if they do not behave.  And all-together, the pressure for life-style conformity, even if leading to obvious unjust inequality, is part of that societal pattern accepted as desirable and functional for society, even if criticized as one-dimensional by others. Dealing with non-economic inequality would necessitate government interference in “private” matters, and that is in principle to be minimized. The answer thus is simply to make the system function smoothly, but not to disturb it by artificially countering inequality.

It is a solution that can be made to sound acceptable to a significant part of the population, and will have substantial resources behind its propagation.

The Liberal response (in the current Democratic debates highlighted by Hillary Clinton) recognizes the existence of economic inequalities of wealth and income, but focuses on non-economic inequalities.

In addressing economic inequalities, its answers are to improve incomes and wealth at the bottom of the scale, leaving the top untouched. The response is based on a social morality which objects to gross inequality that relegates some to living in abject poverty for no fault of their own, and finds the answer in alleviating that poverty. The causes of economic inequality are not dealt with, nor are the benefits of exploitation challenged. The argument is perhaps that there is no reason to object to inequality if no one is hurt by it. If all at the bottom have enough for a decent standard of living, why shouldn’t the rich be richer than they? The answer thus lies in  anti-poverty programs, with a focus on who the poor are, how to help them get ahead with education for jobs and careers, if they are doing their best then to support them with subsidies up to the point where all, regardless of natural capabilities, achieve some minimum  standard of living. Morally the rich should act charitably to help the poor, but the fault that creates poverty lies not in their riches, but in the stars, or in the incapacities of the poor, or in the important economic laws that produce prosperity but inevitably have unequal results for some, with results that should be countered by help from the general funds of society. The goal is not reduce inequality per se, but to put a safety net under the poor, to end poverty. The whole society should agree to such a moral goal, in the Liberal view.

The argument that quantitative inequality is unjust because it is morally unfair to the middle class is a different formulation of this approach, perhaps politically more appealing than a purely moral approach because more people identify as middle class than a poor. But that response develops a line between the middle class and the rest of society, the poor and those who, in non-economic life  style ways, are non-conformists, do not share “middle class values” or patterns of behavior , including, for instance gender relationships.. The concern is that the middle class families are slipping out of the middle and into the bottom, and to help them with governmental support, perhaps low-interest loans to encourage their entrepreneurship, labor laws that prohibit unhealthy working conditions, sick leave, rationalized and partially subsidized health care, and expanded skill-oriented higher education. etc. Conformity to middle class values is demanded of recipients of such benefits, but those not conforming may be helped by carefully moderated measures to come into conformity.[2] The response assumes an essentially normal and inevitable quantitative economic and qualitative non-economic inequality to be natural, and seeks to ameliorate it after it has occurred, in the distribution of its results, rather than dealing with the causes that produce it. Consistent with a Liberal analysis, it addresses the wealth of the top only gingerly, by non-confiscatory taxes on the rich only to the level needed to pay for ameliorative support for the endangered members of the middle class and poor. Answers do not question whether the acquisition of wealth by the rich is a cause of the lesser wealth of the middle and poor. And the taxes on the rich must also be kept moderate, because it is assumed that the rich are needed to provide jobs for the middle and poor, and too high taxes would reduce their incentives to do that.

Thus the Liberal response to inequality is to address it only at the bottom and middle of the distribution of wealth, leaving both the political and the economic structures that have created the inequality at the top modified but essentially intact. But it is a solution that might find consensus support among a large part, if not a majority, of the population.

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This blog is one of a set of five dealing with Unjust Inequality:

Blog #81a: What’s the Problem? Not Just Inequality

Blog #81b: Inequality: What’s the Answer? Economic or Racial? Conservative or Liberal-Clinton?

Blog #81c – From Clinton Liberal to Sanders Progressive Responses

Blog #81d – Inequality: A Radical Response

Blog #81e. – Towards Transformative Approaches to Unjust Inequality.

[1] A whole field of sociology explores these relationships , with the Frankfurt School’s critiques , and particularly Herbert Marcuse’s work, One-Dimensional Man and other writings , being (in my vulnerably objective opinion) prime examples ,.

[2] Even if there is no agreement on what such conformity-inducing measures might be. A recent overview of a dominant paradigm of the 19650’s came from the Moynihan Report of 1965, which found that “Almost One-Fourth of Negro Families are Headed by Females,” “which seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole.” Yet a provocative article by Eduardo Porter in the NYTimes, Wednesday Feb. 3, 2016, pp. B1&7, essentially argues that the problem is basically economic, not marital: better-off single  women have fewer problems than poor ones, and their children do better, but poor married women are no better off than their single sisters. Adding money does more for the children than adding a male (my summary).

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