Inequality is one of those words that cannot be understood except in contrast to its antonym. It needs a preface or clear context. In plain English, it means a difference in size, degree, evenness, variation, and so on. In a social context, it means social inequality. So, we’re not talking here about math—the relation between two expressions that are not equal, employing a sign such as ≠ to dignify not equal. The larger arena of discussion circles endlessly around three different inequalities; income, wealth, and opportunity. That’s essentially social inequality.
There are scores of other words that, when used in the context of inequality, strike a harsh cord worldwide: imbalance, inequity, unevenness, disproportion, inconsistency, divergence, polarity, disparity, discrepancy, dissimilarity, distinction, differential, bias, prejudice, discrimination, unfairness, unfair treatment.
Writers who dare to use those words are harshly treated in totalitarian regimes today. At present, there are only four country-states in the world deemed totalitarian: The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The Syrian Arab Republic. The State of Eritrea. And the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
There are twenty authoritarian governments: Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, DR Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Guinea-Bissau, Iran, Libya, Laos, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, Uzbekistan.
The United States of America is a republic. Here supreme power is vested in the people and our elected representatives. We elect presidents rather than monarchs. We have no kings or queens. Here our government consists of elected or appointed leaders who are responsible to the citizens who elected or appointed them. We have never been authoritarian or totalitarian. But recently, we face the global expansion of authoritarian rule. As of 2023, Freedom House rates the United States at 83 on a scale of 100. Our political scale is rated as 33 out of 40 and our civil liberty rating is 50 out of 60. “The United States is a federal republic whose people benefit from a vibrant political system, a strong rule-of-law tradition, robust freedoms of expression and religious belief, and a wide array of other civil liberties. However, in recent years its democratic institutions have suffered erosion, as reflected in rising political polarization and extremism, partisan pressure on the electoral process, bias and dysfunction in the criminal justice system, harmful policies on immigration and asylum seekers, and growing disparities in wealth, economic opportunity, and political influence.”
Scores of writers have written hundreds of thousands of words about the abstract notion of “inequality.” Most of the written work stems from the reality that many republics around the globe have become far less equal over the last thirty years. There are many books arguing for and against inequality, but these five are arguably the five best. At least collectively, they explain how and why we are now less equal than we were in the last century: (1) The Race Between Education and Technology by Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz. (2) Top Incomes in the Long Run of History by Emmanuel Saez, Thomas Piketty, and Tony Atkinson. (3) Why Nations Fail, by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, (4) Unequal Democracy, by Larry M. Bartels. (5) Bankers, by Simon Johnson and James Kwak.
“Inequality is one of the things that has changed quite a lot in the United States and other economies over the last three decades or so. A lot of things don’t change radically, but inequality has. Understanding why that has happened and what it implies for our society is important. So, it’s a good thing that it’s in the news, it’s an important topic and there is no reason for it to be taboo. Having said that, there is no broad consensus among social scientists about how to talk about inequality, and the average economist probably thinks about it very differently than the average layman.”
A Nobel-winning economist says inequality breeds discontent. “Joseph Stiglitz wrote a decade ago about the alarming wealth and income gap in the U.S. that had been set into motion by years of policy decisions but exacerbated by the 2007-2008 global financial crisis. “We have more inequality than other countries and remarkably less equality of opportunity than almost any other country. . . A large part of the story is our legal frameworks, the rules that we write down and including the rules about how you make those rules. If you have politics where you have a minority controlling the majority … then you can have an economic system where you stop enforcing antitrust laws; you don’t keep up with the changes in technology and digital platforms; you weaken unions — there are a whole set of things that can change the balance of power . . . the influence of the wealthy on the political system.”
America’s public sector voice, NPR, answered the question of why we have so much poverty in America on its Fresh Air program. “The United States is the richest country on earth, with more poverty than any other advanced democracy. . . many things keep people poor – housing segregation, predatory lending and bank charges, the decline of unions and tax policies that favor the wealthy and promote inequality. . . [but also] the ways that affluent Americans, including many with progressive political views, benefit from corporate and government policies that keep people poor. They get lower prices from exploited workers and tax breaks for mortgage interest, college savings and retirement accounts. And they benefit from zoning rules that keep affluent communities financially segregated and tax policies that starve public services that poor and working people depend on. . . Americans need to become poverty abolitionists, supporting policy changes and making personal choices that undercut poverty.”
One of the world’s richest people, Bill Gates, wrote about why inequality matters. He read Thomas Piketty’s Capital In the Twenty-First Century.  Piketty’s earlier work was aptly titled, “A Brief History of Equality.” Mr. Gates said, “I very much agree with Piketty that: High levels of inequality are a problem—messing up economic incentives, tilting democracies in favor of powerful interests, and undercutting the ideal that all people are created equal. Capitalism does not self-correct toward greater equality—that is, excess wealth concentration can have a snowball effect if left unchecked. Governments can play a constructive role in offsetting the snowballing tendencies if and when they choose to do so. To be clear, when I say that high levels of inequality are a problem, I don’t want to imply that the world is getting worse. In fact, thanks to the rise of the middle class in countries like China, Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, and Thailand, the world as a whole is actually becoming more egalitarian, and that positive global trend is likely to continue. But extreme inequality should not be ignored—or worse, celebrated as a sign that we have a high-performing economy and healthy society. Yes, some level of inequality is built into capitalism. As Piketty argues, it is inherent to the system. The question is, what level of inequality is acceptable? And when does inequality start doing more harm than good? That’s something we should have a public discussion about, and it’s great that Piketty helped advance that discussion in such a serious way.”
The Council on Foreign Relations chimed in on what they called “The U.S. Inequality Debate.” Their summary is short and cutting. “Income and wealth inequality is higher in the United States than in almost any other developed country, and it is rising. There are large wealth and income gaps across racial groups, which many experts attribute to the country’s legacy of slavery and racist economic policies. Proposals to reduce inequality include a more progressive income tax, a higher minimum wage, and expanded educational opportunities.”
Race, ethnicity, and gender factor in any discussion of inequality. The CFR also took on that topic in April 2022. “The relationship between race, ethnicity, and inequality has been well-documented. Since 1960, the median wealth of white households has tripled while the wealth of Black households has barely increased. For decades, the unemployment rate among Black Americans has been roughly twice that of white Americans. Black Americans are also underrepresented in high-paying professions, including corporate leadership. As of 2020, only four of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are Black. Black and American Indian children have far lower economic mobility compared to white, Asian, and children of Hispanic ethnicity, according to Chetty’s research.”
The Economic Policy Institute dug deeply into the role education plays in any inequality debate. “Extensive research has conclusively demonstrated that children’s social class is one of the most significant predictors—if not the single most significant predictor—of their educational success. Moreover, it is increasingly apparent that performance gaps by social class take root in the earliest years of children’s lives and fail to narrow in the years that follow. That is, children who start behind stay behind—they are rarely able to make up the lost ground. . . High and rising inequality is one of the United States’ most pressing economic and societal issues. Since the early 1980s, the total share of income claimed by the bottom 90 percent of Americans has steadily decreased, with the majority of income gains going to the top 1 percent. These trends would not be such a major concern if our education system compensated for these inequities by helping level the playing field and enabling children to rise above their birth circumstances.”
Needless to say, poverty and inequality raise gigantic ethical challenges. The Berkly Center at Georgetown University linked inequality to four different challenges: (1) Social challenge. (2) Cultural challenge. (3) Ecological challenge. (4) Ethical challenge. They focused on the link between inequality and ethics. “Inequality also tests our ethics. Inequality is not just about income gaps. We may not value the same things in life. People and a society may pursue different paths whose values cannot be compared by a simple measure of how much you possess.”
Of course, there are naysayers who argue that equality is not a fundamental moral value. Psychology Today says, “Here is an argument intended to show that equality is not the fundamental moral value that many people think it is. Inequality is natural because people vary with respect to biological features such as height, strength, energy, and intelligence. There is no way to level people down to the same abilities, so we should expect that some people will be more successful in accumulating wealth. Interfering with this accumulation will infringe on people’s rights to fundamental freedoms that include freedom from harm and the right to property. Inequality matters only for a narrow set of rights, such as free speech, equal opportunity, and equality in legal treatment. History shows that restricting such freedoms with the aim of a more equal distribution of wealth produces totalitarian regimes such as the Soviet Union. Moreover, such controlled societies have a dismal record of achieving the kind of economic growth that benefits everyone: a rising tide lifts all boats.”
The “middle” view is best expressed by the Brookings Institute, an American think tank that conducts research and education in the social sciences, primarily in economics, metropolitan policy, governance, foreign policy, global economy, and economic development. “We will have to strike a balance. Today’s unacceptably high inequality demands interventions to improve education and health as well as redistributive taxation . . . but it also requires us to tolerate some income disparities to keep people and economies working.”
Santa Clara University is known for its assessment of and attention to ethics. It examined the “income gap” in 1998. “As the ‘American Century’ draws to a close, the United States appears to be experiencing a decade of extraordinary economic prosperity. Since the early 1990s, economic growth has been steady and robust, inflation near zero, and unemployment rates at a level that most economists would have dismissed as implausibly low just 10 years ago. This record prompted Alan Greenspan, the chair of the Federal Reserve Board, to declare that the economy’s current performance is as impressive as it has been at any time in the past half-century. . . Compared with the residents of many other economically advanced countries, Americans seem to have a high tolerance for economic inequality. The growing gap between rich and poor has prompted intermittent public discussion about fairness but little sustained dialogue regarding what, if anything, is wrong with income inequality and what ought to be done about it.”
Fifteen years later, CNN chimed in by asking whether “income equality was morally wrong.” Their answer was, “It’s getting harder to shock people with stats about income equality. Americans know they live in a two-tier country – one where the uber-super-ultra-rich are leaving the rest of us behind; where, as Michael Moore famously put it, 400 of the richest people control the same amount of wealth as 150 million others; where, as President Obama said in a speech on Wednesday, the ‘average CEO has gotten a raise of nearly 40% since 2009, but the average American earns less than he or she did in 1999. Even though our businesses are creating new jobs and have broken record profits,’ the president said in his prepared remarks, ‘nearly all the income gains of the past ten years have continued to flow to the top 1%. 2%, red percent, blue percent.”
In 2016, The Ethics Sage asked, “Is Income Inequality a Moral Problem?” He answered his own question. “My take is that our free market economic system depends on the exercise of ethical behavior by corporate officials to provide for the public good. Absent decision-making based on ethical values such as honesty, responsibility, and fair treatment of others, the system cannot be trusted to allocate resources in the best interests of society. The root cause of such problems is the pursuit of self-interest to the exclusion of all others.”
So, there you have it. Income inequality is embedded in a free market system. But ethical values still matter. When we write about inequality we should include the quaint notions of honesty, responsibility, and fair treatment. We don’t have to redistribute wealth, but we do have to support honest, responsible policies to keep the free market free.
I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.
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