In the preface to the 1996 version of this best-seller, the authors (including the recently deceased Robert Bellah) write this:
“We believe the degree of class difference today is wrong in the same sense that Lincoln believed slavery was wrong: it deprives millions of people the ability to participate fully in society and to realize themselves as individuals. This is the festering secret that Americans would rather not face. Many nations have persisted while divided into a small elite that lives in luxury and a large mass in various stages of insecurity and misery, but this nation, with the ideals and hopes of the last 220 years, cannot permanently so endure.”
The classical justification for income inequality is that wealth in a society can support that society’s development of the arts, its pursuit of intellectual inquiry, and its investment in the future– as well as affording the holders of wealth the freedom to serve others. From that perspective, a person’s wealth is not just his alone, to be used for and at his pleasure, but rather is subject to a wider moral claim: his wealth has a social dimension and a social purpose. The classical understanding is that wealth has a special obligation to be used for the making of a humane and habitable society.
Today in America, wealth is pursued as though it were a good in and of itself, and even more: as though the possession of it will ward off any ills, any vulnerabilities, any insecurities. Wealth is seen as the gateway to security. Do you want to be immune from the vicissitudes of life? The false promise is that wealth will protect us. Today in America, wealth is a false god.
The cost of this idolatry is being paid two ways. The first payment is in the currency of anxiety. Because we have bought into the myth of the saving power of wealth so deeply, we are chronically worried about not having enough money, or about losing what we have. This is as true of multi-millionaires as it is of those living from week to week. Further compounding this anxiety is that our social ethos– a social ethos that informally but powerfully assigns shame and honor– is calibrated (especially for men, I daresay) to dollar earnings. Honor goes to the seven-figure salary; shame to the unemployed.
The second payment is in the currency of human fulfillment, as Bellah and his colleagues write in the preface, quoted above. Today in America, income inequality has become opportunity inequality– to a large extent because the moral claim that wealth should serve a wider, societal purpose has been all but extinguished. Today’s economic and political order is a carnival game: it looks enticing and simple enough to toss the ball into the milk can, but the game is subtly, almost imperceptibly, designed to be impossible to win. A vast amount of human energy is lost to the grind of making ends meet.