A lot of progressives seem to be afflicted with a weird form of ADHD. Try as they might, they simply can’t talk about poverty for more than 30 seconds without lapsing off into talking about inequality. Progressives claim to have a special care for the poor, but what really gets them animated is talking about the rich, and in particular how much more the rich have than anyone else (including their very not poor selves). Inequality, though, is not the same thing as poverty. A society where everyone is starving to death is highly egalitarian.
Should we care about equality as such? A lot of progressives say that we should. Here, for example, is a bit from Tony Judt’s posthumously published Ill Fares the Land (helpfully provided by my former co-blogger Morning’s Minion):
“Inequality, then, is not just unattractive in itself; it clearly corresponds to pathological social problems that we cannot hope to address unless we attend to their underlying cause. There is a reason why infant mortality, life expectancy, criminality, the prison population, mental illness, unemployment, obesity, malnutrition, teenage pregnancy, illegal drug use, economic insecurity, personal indebtedness and anxiety are so much more marked in the US and the UK than they are in continental Europe.
The wider the spread between the wealthy few and the impoverished many, the worse the social problems: a statement which appears to be true for rich and poor countries alike. What matters is not how affluent a country is but how unequal it is. Thus Sweden, or Finland, two of the world’s wealthiest countries by per capital income or GDP, have a very narrow gap separating their richest from their poorest citizens–and they consistently lead the world in indices of measurable wellbeing. Conversely, the United States, despite its huge aggregate wealth, always comes low on such measures.
Of course, if inequality leads to crime, mental illness, and so forth, then you might wonder: why the crime rate is higher in Finland than the U.S.,? Why is the suicide rate higher in Finland and Sweden than the U.S.? Etc.
I suspect that deep down progressives do not care about inequality. Or, rather, they care about inequality to the extent that it seems to support their policy prescriptions, and not one bit more (they are, of course, hardly unique in this).
For example, take immigration. Every time a poor kid from Guatemala swims across the Rio Grande, inequality in the U.S. goes up slightly. If several million immigrants do so, this increase in inequality is greatly magnified. If progressives really cared about inequality, then they ought to be stridently anti-immigration (as, in fact, were many of the original progressives). But they aren’t. So they don’t.
Or take Europe. It is a commonplace to say that while the U.S. may be wealthier Europe is at least more egalitarian. And this is true if you only look at inequality within individual countries. Yet if you look at Europe as a whole the gap between rich and poor is extremely large. Per capita income in the richest member of the European Union (Luxembourg, $78,409) is about 6.6 times as much as per capita income for the poorest member (Bulgaria, $11,883). For comparison, the richest state in the U.S. (DC, $66,000) has a per capita income that is roughly 2.2 times as large as the per capita income of the poorest state (Mississippi, $30,103).
Inequality between societies does not seem to bother progressives as much as inequality within societies, so perhaps this is not such a big deal. The goal of the European Union, however, is to integrate the different European societies with each other. At some point someone is going to calculate the gini for the European Union as a unit (rather than just averaging the ginis for the different member states) and be shocked to discover that inequality has exploded. If progressives really cared about inequality, then they would view the European Union as a huge disaster. Yet they don’t; so they don’t.
I could go on, but you get the picture.