http://www.slate.com/id/2266025/entry/0/My friend Tim Noah of Slate has written a ten-part series on rising levels of income inequality in the United States. In the final part he asks whether income inequality is actually a bad thing, and concludes that at current levels, it is:
Among industrialized nations, those that have achieved the greatest social equality are the same ones that have achieved the greatest income equality. France, for example, has a level of income inequality much lower than that of most other countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It's one of the very few places where income inequality has been going down. (Most everywhere else it's gone up, though nowhere to the degree it has in the United States.) France also enjoys what the World Health Organization calls the world's finest health care system (by which the WHO means, in large part, the most egalitarian one; this is the famous survey from 2000 in which the U.S. ranked 37th).
Do France's high marks on both social equality and income equality really strike you as a coincidence? As incomes become more unequal, a likelier impulse among the rich isn't to urge or even allow the government to create or expand public institutions where they can mix it up with the proles. It's to create or expand private institutions that will help them maintain separation from the proles, with whom they have less and less in common. According to Jonathan Rowe, who has written extensively about social equality, that's exactly what's happening in the United States.
I find myself returning to the gut-level feeling expressed at the start of this series: I do not wish to live in a banana republic. There is a reason why, in years past, Americans scorned societies starkly divided into the privileged and the destitute. They were repellent. Is it my imagination, or do we hear less criticism of such societies today in the United States? Might it be harder for Americans to sustain in such discussions the necessary sense of moral superiority?
What is the ideal distribution of income in society? I couldn't tell you, and historically much mischief has been accomplished by addressing this question too precisely. But I can tell you this: We've been headed in the wrong direction for far too long.