Does inequality matter?
by Ramesh Ponnuru
We conservatives tend to get less worked up about economic inequality than liberals do, and I think we’re right about that. We should want most people, and especially poor people, to be able to get ahead in absolute terms. We should want to live in a society with a reasonable degree of mobility rather than one where people are born into relative economic positions they can never leave. But so long as those conditions are met, the ratio of the incomes of the top 1 percent to the median worker should be fairly low on our list of concerns; and if those conditions aren’t met, we should worry about our failure to meet them rather than their effects on inequality.
Because they so dislike inequality in principle, and would like to get others to care about it as much as they do, liberals are biased toward finding that inequality is the cause of a great many other phenomena that everyone regards as problems. Conservatives, because we don’t worry so much about inequality per se and oppose many of the most obvious ways of combating it, have the opposite bias: We’re inclined to skepticism about evidence that inequality in itself causes trouble.
These biases go some way toward explaining why George Packer, in an essay for the New Yorker, is frustrated with conservatives for not being up to dealing with the economic challenges facing the U.S. — which he takes to be all about inequality — and why I’m just not convinced by his case.