Friday, August 24, 2012

The Survey: Equality at the Founding

Over the past few years, we've seen a series of books on equality in America, most lamenting the fact that the United States has grown increasingly unequal over the past few decades.  To take just a few examples, see Timothy Noah, The Great Divergence: America's Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It (New York: Bloomsbury, 2012), Joseph Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future (New York: Norton, 2012); and Glenn Greenwald, Equality and Justice for Some: How the Law is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful (New York: Macmillan, 2011). All of these texts seem to assume that inequality is and has always been considered a bad thing.  Has it?  Gordon Wood makes the case in The Radicalism of the American Revolution that the founders endorsed a theory of equality "as no other nation has ever quite had it" precisely because they believed that no one "was really better than anyone else." (RAR, 234)  Yet, even Wood concedes that "[i]n embracing the idea of civic equality ... the revolutionaries had not intended to level their society." (RAR, 233).  No indeed.  Take Federalist #10.  Often read for its endorsement of a large national republic, the document also presented a vigorous defense of inequality, one that anticipated Marx by over half a century.  Take this line, for example: “the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property … A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes.”  Isn't that the basic premise of Marx's 1848 Communist Manifesto?  Yet, unlike Marx, Madison came to view the emergence of "different classes" as a positive.  “From the protection of different and unequal faculties," he observed, "the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results,” meaning that people with certain faculties, or talents, will be rewarded with certain amounts of property.  More property will go to those with more faculties and, in Madison’s view, “[t]he protection of these faculties is the first object of government.”  Put simply, government's role is to preserve inequality, precisely so that there will be innovation and incentive to work.  This leads to a larger argument about the Virginia Plan and the ensuing Federal Constitution  Rather strive to end inequality, Madison’s Constitution aimed to preserve it, precisely to encourage the development of individual faculties, or talents, talents which would then be rewarded with property.  What would Stiglitz, Greenwald, and Noah say to this?  Rather than a classless society, as Marx would propose, Madison seemed to envision a society of vast disparities in wealth, disparities protected by the Constitution.  Any call for “an equal division of property,” argued Madison, even if pushed by an electoral majority, constituted a “wicked project.”