Quite a few years ago William F. Buckley remarked in exasperation that he would not read another book about liberalism until his grandmother wrote one. I don’t know whether she has, but if not, Buckley really ought to make an exception for The End of Equality by Mickey Kaus. Many details of Kaus’s argument will arouse opposition or skepticism from liberals, conservatives, or both. But in its overall vision and thrust, it is an original, powerful, important book, capable of permanently altering the terms of American political debate.
It is obvious that economic inequality has increased in the United States in the last ten or fifteen years. Most disputes about the subject concern either how much or why. The End of Equality asks a different question: why does it matter? It does matter, of course, to Kaus as much as anyone; but not, either to him or (he claims) most of the rest of us, for the reasons often assumed.
The equality most Americans value, says Kaus, is not equality of income but civic equality: equal dignity and respect for all who do their part, i.e., work. People who accept their obligation to society, who work, are entitled to self-esteem and material security, at any rate in a prosperous democracy like ours. Equal dignity and respect means such people’s right to at adequate medical care, legal help, education for their children, and the other necessities of a good life, and even to some of its amenities: safe and pleasant public spaces, public transportation, clean air. These things need not be distributed exactly equally, or even distributed at all. But if some people can afford the very best of all these goods, while many others who are working or have worked hard, or are willing to work, can barely afford a decent minimum of them, or cannot afford them at all-- this violates most Americans’ sense of fairness.
As Kaus points out, this sentiment does not amount to an ideological opposition to capitalism, nor even to some populist antipathy toward the rich. If through luck, talent, or exceptionally hard work someone strikes it rich and wants to buy a yacht, take exotic vacations, retire at 40, most of us will gladly (or grudgingly) tip our hat to her. But that well-off Americans should live on safe streets while less affluent but equally hardworking Americans are afraid to go out after dark; should be able to afford crowns for their teeth or nursing care for their parents or stimulating schools for their kids, while a lot of equally hardworking people can’t: this doesn’t sit right.
In short, a democracy can allow rich and poor, but not first-class citizens and second-class citizens. Such at least, Kaus claims, basing himself on polling data as well as a persuasive reading of American political history, is most contemporary Americans’ understanding of democracy. I think he’s right. And he’s right, too, to perceive not merely the negative side of this ideal, the widespread popular disapproval of unfair hardship, but the positive side as well, the civic and psychological healthiness of mixing the classes, of having institutions where rich and poor stand in line together, go to meetings together, sit and root together in the bleachers or the grandstands. This is what endures, and deserves to endure, from the culture of small-town America.
This vision of civic equality as earned dignity ought to guide liberal strategy. Instead, according to Kaus, liberals have in recent decades usually settled for straightforward income redistribution: taxes and transfers. A variety of other redistributive policies are currently on offer from Democrats: worker re-training; “flexible,” or technologically decentralized, production; protectionism; profit-sharing; promoting unionization. Kaus takes on each of these schemes, arguing that none of them can really do much to halt the recent sharp increase in income inequality, which is rooted in the transformation of the American economy away from mass production and toward symbol-manipulation, away from unionized blue- and white-collar workers and toward a meritocratic managerial-professional elite.
Instead of this futile and unpopular “Money Liberalism,” Kaus advocates what he calls “Civic Liberalism.” The main idea of Civic Liberalism is “to use the public sphere to incubate and spread an egalitarian culture,” a culture of common interests, sentiments, and experiences. There are half a dozen innovations or reforms, some of them familiar, that could, if framed properly, widen the sphere of social equality. For one: a return to conscription, combined with a year of national service for all who are not drafted. For another: campaign reform, public financing, and free radio and television time for candidates. We can encourage communal day care centers, where classes will mix, rather than simply sending out vouchers, which will ensure further stratification. We can experiment with modest suburban re—zoning schemes that will gradually and unthreatingly reduce the separation of classes in neighborhoods and schools. We can do fairly small things, like eliminating tax deductions for skybox seats and season tickets, regulating television coverage of sporting events to keep it universal(rather than letting cable networks profitably restrict it) , and putting a little soul into celebrating public holidays. And we can do some very big things, like national health insurance.
Above all, Civic Liberalism must address the problem of welfare and the underclass. The urban ghetto and its inhabitants are the stone in the path of social equality. The “culture of poverty” is no social-scientific fiction or racist canard. Welfare and chronic unemployment are undeniably associated with delinquency and crime. And it is fear-- realistic fear-- of crime that keeps potentially class-mixing institutions like parks, squares, stores, movie theaters, restaurants, subways, and most important, schools and neighborhoods, class-stratified instead.
Nowadays schemes for welfare reform lie thick on the ground, variously emphasizing “incentives,” “acculturation,” “empowerment,” etc. Kaus cuts the Gordian knot. He proposes an end of all cash assistance to non-workers-- including mothers of young children-- to be replaced by the offer of a government job at subminimum wages, day care, and an extension of the Earned Income Tax Credit sufficient to lift all low-wage workers in both the public and the private sectors above the poverty line. There will be training, counseling, and other government-provided social services, but no dole.
Kaus estimates the cost of this neo-WPA” program at between $43 billion and $59 billion. As the price of abolishing -- even if it takes more than one generation-- the underclass, ending the welfare state, and inaugurating a “work-ethic state” in which civic equality, universal dignity, and mutual respect are at least possible, this seems cheap.
These are dark times for civic liberals and all others with even a grain of public spirit. Twelve years of Reaganism have eroded social solidarity, concern for the public sphere, and confidence in government action. The “ecology of equality” (Kaus’s apt phrase) is as fragile as natural ecology, and cannot indefinitely survive Republican neglect and Democratic incompetence. Amid the political gloom, The End of Equality shines out. One can only hope enough readers and leaders will see the light.