Economic inequality in America is as bad as it's been in a century. And with 95 percent of income gains going to the top 1 percent, the gap between classes is widening at a breakneck pace. This has put defenders of our existing economic order in a tough spot, forcing them to justify a system that Americans increasingly regard as unfair.
When Occupy Wall Street forced the issue of inequality onto the national stage in 2011, the initial conservative response was to emphasize opportunity. In a speech written one month after Occupy began, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor summed up the opportunity position nicely: "The basis upon which America was founded and the basis upon which America thrives is providing people with the equality of opportunity — not equality of outcome."
The rhetorical blitz trumpeting our nation's great equal opportunity proved ineffective. Its failure to allay inequality concerns makes sense, of course. There is no equality of opportunity in the U.S., nor anything remotely approaching it. Children's outcomes are closely correlated with the incomes of their parents, more so in fact than almost every other similarly developed country. Year-to-year economic mobility is also very uncommon.
Since vigorously celebrating equal opportunity that does not actually exist has not managed to soothe the masses, a new tactic has evolved: dismissing the whole inequality discussion as an unfortunate bout of envy.
As best as I can tell, George Will got the envy complaining started in earnest in January 2012. Mitt Romney dropped the e-bomb just five days later in a cringe-worthy comment, warning against talking about inequality in anything but "quiet rooms." Most recently, AEI's Arthur Brooks graced the pages of The New York Times concern-trolling about the downsides of stoking such envy.
This rhetorical turn toward dismissing concerns about inequality as being simply envious is truly mind-boggling.
In the middle of the 20th century, it was conservative defenders of our capitalist system who emphasized the importance of economic outcomes. In one famous 1955 propaganda film, the narrator explains: "Basically, an economic system must fulfill two social needs of the population which it serves: first an adequate production of goods, and second an equitable distribution of those goods." Defenders of the system did not dismiss distributive concerns. They explicitly endorsed such concerns as valid and demonstrated that our economic system answered them head on by distributing resources in a very widespread manner, rather than concentrating them "in the hands of the few, as the socialists and communists say."
The idea that a rising tide should lift all boats, not just the yachts of the very rich, is deeply embedded in our country's history of talking about our economic system. In and around the 1950s, the incomes of the bottom and middle classes were rising faster than the incomes of those at the top, and this fact was celebrated most feverishly by conservatives who thought it showed the greatness of our economic system. Casting off as envy the very kinds of distributive considerations they used to brag about is transparently silly, and not likely to persuade many.
Of course, the deeper problem is that calling something envy is nothing but a flippant way to dismiss totally legitimate concerns about justice. In some sense, all complaints about unequal treatment could be categorized as envy if you really wanted to do so. The women's movement was, I guess, envious of all of the political and economic power men had that women were denied. The black civil rights movement was, I suppose, envious of the way in which whites were afforded full citizenship and not crushed under the heel of Jim Crow. LGBT individuals are similarly envious of the legally recognized marriages that straight couples enjoy.
Granted, conservatives would not choose to describe these things as envy, not today at least. They would likely distinguish that kind of inequality-driven discontent as non-envious and legitimate because the inequalities it referenced were actually unjust.
But that kind of distinction just makes painfully clear what they are trying to do when they talk about envy in the realm of economic inequality. Referring to anger over distributive inequality as envy already implicitly assumes that such anger is wholly without merit and unjustified, but without actually making an argument to that effect. It takes the legitimately contested question of the justness of extremely inequality, assumes without any discussion that it is just, and then accuses those who think otherwise not only of being wrong but of actually being captured by vice and moral deficiencies.
In addition to being intellectually bankrupt, accusing someone of envy when they are complaining about something they regard as an injustice is only going to infuriate them further.
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