What Is To Be Done?

Danielle Allen has written a beautiful brief for equality, and the proper place of egalitarian ideals, not only in the Declaration of Independence, but in America’s political culture more generally. Pierre Rosanvallon has made a similar case, with France as its focus, in his important book, The Society of Equals, first published in French in 2011.

Yet both Allen and Rosanvallon acknowledge a curious paradox: that a stress on liberty as the essence of liberal democracy has in our own day apparently triumphed over – even trumped – the egalitarian convictions of the activists and intellectuals who forged the first democratic republics.

The empirical evidence on this matter seems unambiguous. A variety of economists, from Joseph Stiglitz to Thomas Piketty, have shown that America, like France, and most European countries, has become ever more unequal in recent decades.

Both men have also proposed a number of policies that might help reverse these current economic trends. “Simple changes,” writes Stiglitz, “including higher capital-gains and inheritance taxes, greater spending to broaden access to education, rigorous enforcement of anti-trust laws, corporate governance reforms that circumscribe executive pay, and financial regulations that rein in banks’ ability to exploit the rest of society – would reduce inequality and increase equality of opportunity markedly.”

Still, it’s a striking feature of our present moment that policies like these at first glance seem politically out of reach. As Stiglitz puts it, “The main question confronting us today is not really about capital in the twenty-first century. It is about democracy in the twenty-first century.”

I think Stiglitz is right – but herein lies a further problem. Few American politicians dare advocate the kinds of policies Stiglitz proposes – and this, remarkably, in a nation explicitly “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” in the words of Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address, quoting the key phrase from the Declaration of Independence that Danielle Allen makes a centerpiece of her analysis.

In other words, our democracies today seem paralyzed in the face of rising inequality.

As a hopeful sign, one might point to the attacks on financial elites launched by various populist parties and movements of both the left and the right, in both Europe and the United States – Occupy Wall Street in 2011 did manage to bring inequality back into America’s political conversation. Yet in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown, individuals and families in the advanced industrial societies still seem wary of any policies that might jeopardize whatever wealth they currently possess. Many seem skeptical that we should even aspire to becoming “a society of equals.”

Hence my question to Danielle Allen: What is to be Done?

How can we renew and revivify our founding egalitarian ideals? How should we approach the problems of both capital and democracy in the twenty-first century?

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