Last week, I quoted Eric Foner’s observation that liberalism lacks a “vocabulary” for discussing America’s economic crisis, especially inequality. At the risk of taking this observation a bit too literally, here are some preliminary thoughts on how to think and talk about the problem.
This claim, as I understand it, is linked to Foner’s complaint that liberals are reluctant to discuss the problems facing Americans today in terms of freedom. Or, as I put it last week: inequality is treated merely as an economic problem, even though it’s also a problem of citizenship. Extreme wealth leads to massive, entrenched imbalances in political power, undermining equal democratic citizenship. Thus “inequality” is not just economic inequality—although it starts there. Ultimately, it’s political inequality as well. And it’s a kind of political inequality that hardly anyone is willing to defend. It’s relatively uncontroversial, for instance, that citizens have more power than non-citizens, or that adults have more than children. Many would also defend greater authority being given, in certain situations, to experts—like climate scientists, military leaders, or economists. But the inequality generated by income gaps is distinct from this latter sort because it’s not connected to knowledge, and because it’s not issue-specific. And it’s distinct from the first sort of inequality, too, because even though it’s categorical (like the inequality between adults and children), it’s a categorical distinction with hardly any overt defenders.
This frame is distinct from rhetoric about economic security, fairness, or even “equality of opportunity.” It’s not incompatible with any of those approaches, and it can supplement them in important ways. If liberals are serious about inequality, and about its civic dimensions, why not use the rhetoric of “control” in order to emphasize its loss? Inequality corrodes our ability to control our own lives by giving control to others. It cements the power of the ultra-wealthy, distorts policy in their favor, and drowns out the voices of average citizens. This is unfair, yes, and it diminishes opportunity, and it undermines economic security. But it also takes control away from the demos and directs it up the pay scale. Conservatives love to talk about freedom in the negative sense, presenting government intervention as the greatest threat to American liberty. The dismal record of that way of thinking has created an opportunity to reclaim “freedom” as self-direction—as re-asserting control over the forces that direct our lives. This effort is impossible without government, something liberals have been struggling to say directly since at least the 1980s. Hopefully, that might finally start to change.