The liberal American economic narrative is intriguing. One of the most pressing socioeconomic challenges of our time, we’re told, is income inequality. While it once lay on the political fringe, the campaign to close the so-called income gap is gaining mainstream political traction, as shown by the rise of the socialist wing within the Democratic Party.
Indeed, solving income inequality sounds like a noble goal. The liberal argument is fairly candid, even superficially logical: No policy should further abject poverty. It is our duty to help the poor and downtrodden. We must, therefore, oppose the widening income gap.
In the words of Sheldon Cooper, I accept those premises but reject that conclusion.
With no shortage of reliable empirical data, political economist Larry Bartels of Vanderbilt University showed in his 2008 book, “Unequal Democracy,” that Democratic economic policies have historically bridged the income divide while Republicans have aggravated it. Based on this, it is not hard to build a narrative that Republicans only care for the wealthy, while Democrats champion equity and seek to raise up the poor. If only our politics could be this simple.
I will proudly concede what my side of the aisle often dismisses as hyperbole, but Republicans do not — indeed, should not — care about income inequality. Questions or problems framed in terms of inequality are the easiest in the world to solve.
If we are to take Bartels’ research seriously, which we should, Democratic policies generally succeed far more than Republican ones at leveling Americans’ income. But here is the problem with thinking in terms of inequality: by focusing on closing the gap, one is only concerned with the differential between two classes, regardless of how each class is doing independently.
But there is a larger reason Democrats are better at closing the wage gap: they invariably support policies that redistribute wealth from the top. Indeed, one of two methods is sufficient to fulfill Democrats’ promise of closing the gap: either the top must be pulled down or the bottom raised.
Framing the ultimate question as one of inequality blurs the significant differences in utility between the two methods and falsely suggests that the perfect solution lies in equalizing everybody’s finances. This much is intuitive — where inequality is the problem, equality must logically follow as the solution.
This consequentialist outlook dwells on the ends and is quick to dismiss important considerations behind the mechanisms of economic wellbeing. Under the Democratic framework, economic equality is the noble goal, however it must be brought about.
Accomplishing this is quite simple when Democrats control the government. The wealth they are after already exists in the hands of the rich, and their road to equality simply requires using state force to take this existing wealth and put it into more ostensibly equitable channels. There is no creation involved; the wealth that must be moved around already exists at the top.
The most difficult part of the Democratic route is defining equity. The policy itself is as simple as it gets.
What is infinitely more difficult is what Republicans try to do, often in small, incremental steps, sometimes unsuccessfully: create wealth. Unlike diverting existing capital and resources, this focuses on sustainable, long-term goals: improving overall economic health, promoting new industries, improving competitive advantage, fostering strong market conditions, raising competition, cultivating market versatility, and harnessing capital and labor productivity. Closing the income gap in the name of abstractly defined social equity is easy, but doing so with long-term economic health is far more policy than politics.
Diverting existing wealth by force of government will close any economic gap, no matter how large. But, as the post-revolutionary French will attest, pulling down those at the top is never a sustainable solution to inequality. Instead, we must seek to raise our overall economic health so that bridging the wage gap becomes a natural side-effect of market conditions, not a forced outcome.
Harping on inequality may help Democratic campaigns, but that only distracts us from the thought and work that we need to put in solve our deeper economic problems.