Conservatives defend inequality out of self-interest — nothing more

Conservatives have justified inequality for decades, arguing that it is an inevitable byproduct of capitalism and broadly beneficial. This intellectual edifice has begun to collapse.

Supply-side economics rest on the assumption that the wealthy drive economic growth, and that by reducing taxes on them, we can unleash latent economic potential. In fact, however, investment is driven by demand, not supply (a point acknowledged by the relatively conservative Martin Feldstein). If there are viable investments, they will be made regardless of tax rates, and if there are no investments, cutting taxes is merely pushing on a string. Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, two top economists on inequality, find no correlation between marginal tax rates and economic growth.

Recently, two IMF papers confirmed what Keynesians like Joseph Stiglitz have long argued: Inequality reduces the incomes of the middle class, and therefore demand. This stunted demand means fewer opportunities for investment, stunting growth.

Add to this growing body of research the fact that a robust defense of inequality is increasingly difficult to muster when every other OECD country has far lower levels of inequality than the United States. Greg Mankiw’s defense of the 1 percent was widely decried, because a large swath of research shows that the rise of the 1 percent did not come from natural economic forces, but rather rent-seeking.

The evidence is clear: The economic benefits of inequality have been massively oversold. Inequality is, in fact, a detriment to growth. So why has the right not conceded the argument?

The answer is class interest.

“Class interest” does not mean that the wealthy are nefarious schemers. Instead, it means there are various cognitive biases that lead them to justify and perpetuate inequality. For instance, Kris-Stella Trump conducted experiments in which participants were asked to solve anagrams in a high inequality scenario (the winner received $9 and the loser $1) and a low inequality scenario (the winner got $6 and the loser $4). When asked what a fair distribution would look like, the high inequality group preferred an inequality of $5.54 ($7.77-$2.23) while the low inequality group preferred inequality of $2.30 ($6.15-$3.85). She concludes: “Public ideas of what constitutes fair income inequality are influenced by actual inequality.” Inequality perpetuates inequality.

Paul Piff finds that the wealthy feel more entitled to their earnings and are more likely to show personality traits typically associated with narcissism. Recent research by Andrew J. Oswald and Natavudh Powdthavee finds that lottery winners in the UK are more likely to switch their political affiliation to the right, and also more likely to believe that current distributions of wealth are fair. As people get richer, they think that tax policies favoring the rich are fair — not because of the macro-economic benefits, but because of how they benefit me.

These cognitive biases, rooted in class distinctions, have deep implications. As a young economist argued in 1846, “The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships.” Benjamin I. Page, Larry M. Bartels, and Jason Seawright examined the policy preferences of the very wealthy and found that they generally fall in line with their class interests. The wealthy were far less likely than the general public to believe that “government must see that no one is without food, clothing, or shelter,” or that minimum wage must be “high enough so that no family with a full-time worker falls below official poverty line,” or that “the government in Washington ought to see to it that everyone who wants to work can find a job.”

This is not meant to demean the policy preferences of the wealthy — only to examine the motives. For too long, the wealthy have couched their economic ideas as being broadly good for the country, but in fact, de-unionization, capital market liberalization, and austerity benefit themwhile leaving the rest of us far worse off. It’s time that we were all honest about why we support the policies we support.

Now of course, not everyone who supports conservative economic policy is wealthy. Indeed, there is a large literature devoted to the question why the working class supports policies against their own interests. Engles calls this phenomenon “false consciousness,” writing to Franz Mehring, “the real motive forces impelling him remain unknown to him; otherwise it simply would not be an ideological process.” Thomas Frank proposes that working-class conservatives are swayed by social issues. Ian Haney Lopez argues that racial animus still plays a role. Rick Perlstein notes the power of identity politics. The American ethos of upward mobility certainly plays a role; truck drivers in Tallahassee vote for tax breaks on Wall Street believing that they may someday posses enough wealth that an estate tax might affect them. John Steinbeck noted the power of aspiration, writing, “Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”

But when it comes to wealthy conservatives who favor economic policies that hurt many Americans: Bartels’ previous investigation of economic and political power finds, unsurprisingly, that those with a higher socioeconomic status have more influence on legislative outcomes. Martin GilensDorian WarrenJacob HackerPaul Pierson, and Kay Lehman Schlozman have all recorded similar findings. It seems obvious, but it is important to connect these dots: Not only do the wealthy have interests divorced from the broader interests of society, but they also have the political heft to turn those interests into policy.

It is considered rather gauche to discuss class today, and the inequality debate is therefore situated in a purely theoretical realm. Liberals are constantly confused and aggravated about why the preponderance of evidence that austerity doesn’t work (while stimulus does) and that inequality harms society is lost on a large portion of conservatives.

Well, let’s face it: Those who support austerity and inequality are not really about “trickle-down” economics or “efficiency and equity.” They are protecting the interests of the upper class.

As Jonathan Swift warned, “It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.”

Originally published on The Week. 

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