What's wrong with inequality?

Will Wilkinson is confused. He can't quite see why liberals get so upset about inequality in cases where everyone has enough to live a reasonably comfortable life.

Kevin Drum and Ezra Klein have both taken a whack at the problem today, but neither quite engages the question Wilkinson raised. Each of them takes the position, more or less, that inequality is a problem because it gets in the way of everyone living a reasonably comfortable life. A useful point to remember, to be sure, but a violation of Wilkinson's assumption that everyone has enough.

For my part, I think that there's something conceptually confused about the very idea of everyone having enough under conditions of extreme inequality. This is because social status is among the most fundamental of human goods, and social status is pursued (at least partly) through economic activity. Moreover, a peculiar thing about social status (as compared to, say, land) is that your baseline need for social status isn't met unless you have about as much as everyone else. Under conditions of severe inequality, then, some people will be deprived of minimal levels of a fundamental human good.

But while I think that's about right, social status is a very fuzzy concept -- it's not even clear, for example, whether we're talking about a fundamental psychological good or a fundamental moral good -- so I doubt that the argument above will convince skeptics of egalitarianism.

So leave social status aside and consider this: under conditions of extreme economic inequality, that economic inequality will infect the functioning of democratic institutions. If you think, as I do, that unequal distribution of political power is itself a bad thing, then this should be enough for you to think that extreme economic inequality is bad. If, on the other hand, you take a utilitarian view of democratic governance, then there's still a serious worry. There's every reason to suspect that a government dominated by the wealthy will pursue policies which favor the interests of the wealthy over the interests of all others. And there's good reason to suspect, further, that over time such policies will result in real harms to the disenfranchised classes.

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