alien & sedition.
Monday, August 06, 2007
  Inequality, Sin, and Law

Reihan Salam has some very interesting comments on Daniel Gross's review of Robert Frank's Falling Behind. Frank's book (which I have not read) is about inequality in America; he apparently argues that the experience of relative deprivation (owning, for instance, a smaller house than one's neighbors) fuels a kind of inflation of consumption, by which each income bracket, struggling to keep up with the one above it, raises the consumption bar for the brackets below it. In Gross's description, this "societywide arms race for goods" has dangerous effects in the context of ever-deepening American inequality:
But since 1979, gains have flowed disproportionately to top earners. In an economy where the wealthy set the norms for consumption and people at every rung strain to maintain the consumption of those just above them, that spells trouble. In today’s arms race, the top 1 percent are armed to the teeth and everybody else is scavenging for ammunition. Between 1980 and 2001, Frank notes, the median size of new homes in the United States rose from 1,600 to 2,100 square feet, “despite the fact that the median family’s real income had changed little in the intervening years.” The end result? Frank methodically presents data showing that the typical American now works more, saves less, commutes longer and borrows more to maintain what he or she views as an appropriate standard of living.
Frank's proposed remedy is a progressive consumption tax that would slow the arms race from the top down. Salam's response is a very interesting exercise in what you might call neo-traditionalist conservative thinking. In an earlier review of Frank's book, Salam wrote:
But what if the real inequality problem isn’t a technical problem? What if it really is a moral problem? Not moral as in “envy is a corrosive thing, so get over it.” Moral as in no progressive consumption tax will prevent people from building overlarge houses or custom cabinets at the expense of spending time with family and friends. A culture that is plagued by materialist excess won’t be cured by a progressive consumption tax. It can only be cured, if at all, through a revival of postmaterialist – or, if you will, prematerialist – family values. It could be that this eminently “progressive” concern can only be successfully addressed with a “conservative” solution.
Now he expands on this by revisiting the question: "what does this mean for us as political actors?" Salam distinguishes between "right-liberals" (by which I presume he means American "conservatives" of the free market-worshipping variety), who see no problem at all with inequality and the consumption arms race, and "left-liberals," who see a problem of justice and advocate institutional solutions. But neither group, he argues, sees anyone as doing anything "wrong" -- an outlook he questions:
What if there is some kind of wrongdoing, in some meaningful sense? As a nonreligious person, I'm not very conversant in the language of sin, but I have a sense that there are some kinds of consumption, perfectly voluntary, that have a deleterious effect on the moral ecology we share. So what if there is a moral problem, and that it's a problem that is not all that susceptible to an institutional solution? After all, no progressive consumption tax will teach children right from wrong, or prevent them from becoming frankly gluttonous adults. A progressive consumption tax would be a very good thing. But it's clearly not enough to teach a culture, which is to say us, restraint. What if, rather, this moral problem in fact indicates a need for some kind of civic education, or a renewed cultural emphasis on the many ways a fulfilling life is at odds with excessive consumption?
This is very interesting -- very Burke-with-a-human-face, suggesting an emphasis on cultural solutions to problems liberals view through the prism of injustice. Justice, of course, does imply an institutional framework; it implies law, civitas, action in the public sphere.

Just as there are "right-liberals," I think there are "left-conservatives," who themselves are primarily interested in culture and moral judgment as against collective action in the public sphere -- the basis for institutional solutions. If anything, I think the left has, over the past few decades, often been too countercultural in this regard. In any sense, they certainly aren't mutually exclusive paths.

For liberals, inequality is primarily a problem of justice as it relates to income distribution, not consumption. That's why we focus on institutional solutions: we're not naive enough to believe that you can tell economic elites to just be nice and share more. You can't legislate everything, but clearly the very premise of law is that the public welfare requires a set of dispassionate institutions, willing to enforce what we can best determine to be the most just rules by which everyone must live. Again: no reason that the moral and the institutional must be mutually exclusive, but neither is it healthy to let a preoccupation with culture distract us from the age-old pursuit of justice.

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