In Foreign Affairs, professor Jerry Z. Muller, chair of the history department at Washington’s Catholic University, takes a thoughtful and balanced look at what the left and right get wrong in the discussion of income inequality in the United States.
Recent political debate in the United States and other advanced capitalist democracies has been dominated by two issues: the rise of economic inequality and the scale of government intervention to address it. As the 2012 U.S. presidential election and the battles over the “fiscal cliff” have demonstrated, the central focus of the left today is on increasing government taxing and spending, primarily to reverse the growing stratification of society, whereas the central focus of the right is on decreasing taxing and spending, primarily to ensure economic dynamism. Each side minimizes the concerns of the other, and each seems to believe that its desired policies are sufficient to ensure prosperity and social stability. Both are wrong.
He takes a thoughtful look at how social and economic changes have affected different social strata in the united States and how equality of opportunity has not increased the equality of outcomes. He also explains how conventional approaches to addressing inequality are increasingly producing diminishing returns. His most trenchant observations revolve around the family’s role in enabling future achievement – I wish he had explored ways to help encourage strong families throughout social strata. Read the whole thing.
It makes me think that if we want to address the problem, one crucial element is to better encourage the strength of two-parent, stable families. There seems to be no debate about their ability to create environments where children are given the tools they need to achieve their highest potential throughout life. When we help people in need, we should be careful not to create incentives for different environments that perpetuate a cycle of poverty and underachievement.