Mickey Kaus is an editor at the New Republic and a perceptive observer of American class divisions. In The End of Equality, he argues persuasively that the most serious threat to American democracy today comes not so much from the maldistribution of wealth as from the decay or abandonment of public institutions in which citizens can meet as equals. Equality of income, he says, is less important than the goal of social or civil equality.
He points out that foreign observers used to marvel at the lack of snobbery, deference, and class feeling in America. There was "nothing oppressed or submissive" about the American worker, German economist Werner Sombart wrote in 1906. "He carries his head high, walks with a lissom stride, and is as open and cheerful in his expression as any member of the middle class." A few years later, the British historian R.H. Tawney noted that America was "marked indeed by much economic inequality; but it is also marked by much social equality." It is this culture of self-respect, Kaus suggests, that we are in danger of losing.
The trouble with our society is not just that the rich have too much money, in Kaus's view, but that their money insulates them, much more than it used to, from the common life. It is the "routine acceptance of 'professionals' as a class apart" and the "smug content" of the affluent and educated for the "demographically inferior" that poses the greatest threat to civic life, according to Kaus.
Outlining a strategy of "civic liberalism," he insists that public policy should seek not to undo the effects of the market, which inevitably promotes inequality of income, but to limit its scope — that is, "to restrict the sphere of life in which money matters." He distinguishes civic liberalism from "money liberalism," the traditional liberal strategy which aims to promote social equality by manipulating the distribution of income and reducing income differences. Where "money liberals" worry about distributing and redistributing income, he writes, "civic liberals" worry about "rebuilding, preserving, and strengthening community institutions in which income is irrelevant" and about "preventing their corruption by the forces of the market."
Kaus's proposals for developing a more egalitarian culture fall into two broad categories. First, he calls for strengthening the public sphere and institutions such as the draft, national service, and public schools, all of which function as social equalizers. Second, he argues that the problem of the "ghetto poor" underclass must be confronted since its very existence "represents a profound violation of social equality." The way to do this, he says, is through mandatory employment of all able-bodied adults who cannot find work on their own, the establishment of universal day-care facilities, and a national health plan. Further, all cash payments to those able to work ought to be eliminated. Kaus believes that the "solidarity-through-check-cashing" strategy, based on the idea that universal receipt of cash government benefits promotes social equality, has been as thoroughly discredited as the notion that distributing money to the poor will somehow end the indignity of poverty. These "check-mailing solutions" to ending poverty "have wound up sustaining, if not creating, the urban underclass whose existence precludes social equality."
Copyright 1997 by Scott London. All rights reserved.