There has been much discussion of rising economic inequality in the developed world recently, along with a generalized sense that the problem has grown to intolerable proportions. But at the same time, there has been little movement to address the situation; instead, there is tacit acceptance of many specific forms of inequality and the processes that produce it. The result is widespread discontent together with practical passivity.
One might call this a Bossuet paradox, after the seventeenth-century theologian Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, who said, “God laughs at men who complain of the consequences while cherishing the causes.” Today, people deplore inequality in general, appalled by broad social statistics or extreme examples of wealth and poverty, but often consent to it in particular, regarding smaller variations in life outcomes as the result of presumptively legitimate individual choices and circumstances. A recent survey conducted in France on the “perception of inequality and feelings of injustice,” for example, found that nearly 90 percent of respondents thought income disparities should be reduced, and an even larger percentage felt that a just society ought to guarantee the fulfillment of everyone’s basic needs (for education, food, health care, and shelter). Yet 57 percent also felt that income inequalities were inevitable in a dynamic economy, and 85 percent said that income differences were acceptable when they rewarded individual merits.
This situation is the product of a strong general moral revulsion at excessive inequality combined with a weak consensus on the theoretical grounds for acting to reduce it. Some might think the latter means that nothing can or will be done about the problem. But during the early and middle decades of the twentieth century, Western governments managed to reduce inequality dramatically, even without a shared vision on the need to do so. They were driven by three objective factors instead: fear that lack of reform would cause social and political turmoil, the practical impacts of the two world wars, and a decline in the belief in individual responsibility for people’s
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