A Conservative Case for Reducing Income Inequality


With a $1.7 trillion U.S. government deficit, it is no surprise that we find ourselves in an anti-government moment.

Compassionate conservatism is no more. The Tea Party proved to be a force to be reckoned with in the last election cycle. As the success of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged at the box office bears out, America is less trusting of government than at any time on record since 1958. A new entitlement, Obamacare, passed, but it has only made things worse – the lack of transparency and deal-making rendered "hope and change" a lie. At this moment in our history, I want to consider two American traditions – the liberal and the civic republican. I argue that conservatives should not be afraid to draw on the civic republican tradition in framing arguments to the effect that excessive income inequality is undesirable.

Given the anti-government mood, it is no surprise that Americans haven't exactly started an in-depth conversation on the subject of how government can reduce inequality. That notion has never sat well with us. It took over 100 years to enact a progressive income tax. To this day, there is a consensus that redistribution is fundamentally un-American – those who believe in it do not like to use the word. Even Social Security, the crown jewel of the New Deal, is not fully redistributive.

Some possible reasons for such an attitude can be found in Louis Hartz's 1955 The Liberal Tradition in America, in which the Harvard professor sought to understand the sources of American exceptionalism. The difference between America and Europe is America's absence of a feudal past. That absence meant there was no revolutionary tradition. The European distinction between liberal (bourgeois) and conservative (Throne and Altar) did not apply. We were all Lockeans, which meant that we all believed in the unlimited ability of everyone to raise themselves up by their bootstraps. Hence we did not see the role of government as robbing Peter to pay Paul. Given such a vision, why care in the slightest about income inequality?

Yet there is another tradition in America, which should give us pause when we consider that the top 1% of households own more or less 35% of the wealth, that the bottom 80% own only 15%, and that this is true in the context of a foreign policy in which the majority of Americans share only remotely in the daily struggle of soldiers expected at any given moment to make the ultimate sacrifice. That other tradition is the civic republican tradition. It is discussed in works like J. G. A. Pocock's The Machiavellian Moment, Bernard Bailyn's The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, and other works by Gordon Wood and Joyce Appleby. Rather than emphasizing individual rights and property, some of these accounts instead put the focus on the common good, the undesirability of huge disparities of power, and the virtue of the citizen (as opposed to property-acquiring actors). Dramatic income inequality, in this tradition, would bespeak trouble under the surface of the polity.

The point is not that one tradition is better than the other. Rather, it is that the uneasy co-existence of both is at the core of the American project. And this means that conservatives need not shrink from insisting that, as the budget battles are fought over the next 5-10 years, our income disparities not be exacerbated further.

Not bailing out a company that is 182.5 billion dollars in the red like AIG and then watching execs use bailout money to award themselves bonuses is an obvious starting point. But so is, perhaps, looking at a tax code that encourages companies to move offshore or even reconsidering trade agreements with countries that impose punitive tariffs on our products and flood our markets with theirs. To the extent that such a code and agreements lead to the loss of quality American jobs, which is then reflected in a rise in income inequality, they impact negatively the ability of those left behind to participate in civic institutions and contribute to a common way of life. This kind of concern with income inequality isn't populism. It is not left-wing. It speaks to something that is true in our tradition, and something that is worth preserving.

Photo CreditWikimedia Commons