Is Reducing Financial Inequality Really Possible?
WE’VE TALKED ABOUT IT, ADVOCATED AGAINST IT, lived with it, and continually felt defeated by it. Despite the best efforts of millions of individuals and groups to tackle the glaring presence of financial inequality in our community, country, and the world, we can be forgiven for feeling no closer to solving it.
We understand about the advances in technology, the challenges to employment, corporations that can shift their operations where they please, and the sheer magnitude of the capitalistic behemoth that stands astride the world appearing unshakable and unremorseful. We have emerged from the last economic recession (the worst since the Depression) and seemed to have learned little from its negative causes. Wealth continues to be moved upwards, to a few people who now control the major share of the world’s finances.
Alexis de Tocqueville is a name hardly mentioned anymore but his observations are as keen today as they were during the 18th century in America. In a piece he later published, titled How an Aristocracy May Be Created by Industry, he made a startling observation:
I think that, generally speaking, the manufacturing aristocracy which we see rising before our eyes is one of the hardest that have appeared on earth … The friends of democracy should keep their eyes anxiously fixed in that direction. For if ever again permanent inequality of conditions and aristocracy make their way into the world, it will have been by that door that they entered.
Keep in mind, he wrote these observations in 1835, but we can’t help acknowledging that the “door” he referred to has been wide open for some time. He premised that, in a free society, based upon the tenuous balance between free markets, social cohesion, and democratic participation, any monopoly, especially over money, would spell ruin to the democratic experiment and the hopes of millions, not just a few.
There’s lot of places where blame can be put – corporations, global financial bodies, a distracted citizenry – but ultimately it all comes to rest on just plain bad politics. When they were lobbied by financial groups to forego urging businesses to invest in new sectors by training future workers and paying them accordingly, political leaders readily replied, leaving millions out of work around the world. Politics oversaw a restructuring that deregulated many of those financial protocols that once used to protect communities. At the same time as they permitted significant corporate tax breaks, governments also failed to invest in the kind of physical infrastructure that connected communities and assisted with the flow of goods and people.
The list of such actions is far more extensive than any of us realized. But we have felt it, and that sense of foreboding has not left us. But here’s the point: each one was a political choice, and the damage from each could have been better minimized if our politics hadn’t been sick and ailing. Different political choices would have resulted in less inequality today. One gets the sense that, following every economic downturn in recent decades, that more of the legislative restraints were taken off the free market in hopes of recapturing past glory. It worked, in that fabulous wealth was generated. Unfortunately, that wealth placed such a huge wedge in society, rewarding those above and pressing down on those beneath the cut, that inequality now characterizes our age more than any in recent decades. All this wealth. All this money. All this inequality. These realities are all linked by the prevalence of poorly aimed political choices.
But there is a glimmer of hope: if the fault lies in our politics, then the solution lies in our democratic instincts. For these to function more effectively, it will take citizens and not a detached elite to correct them, for democracy is based on our ability to correct a system by applying ourselves to the problem. Governments grew lax because we grew distracted, and when numerous capitalist leaders spotted that, they rushed through that door de Tocqueville talked about and occupied the positions of dominance.
Those in control of power and wealth, in most cases, won’t relinquish such amenities freely. It will take citizens, responsible businesses, and democratic organizations coming together and actually selecting people for politics who know where their grounding is – family, community, meaningful work, a more peaceful world, a sense of inner accountability and humility.
Can we reduce financial inequality in our time? Absolutely, but only when we increase our sense of citizen responsibility. There’s the rub.