A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


Long on Lament, Short on Solutions? Dealing with Economic Inequality

Increasing inequality in the United States is a big problem. One recent analysis shows a disturbing graph, which displays not only that, in 2012, the top 1% captured 20% of income, but that the top 10% captured over 50% of income, a number that is higher than at any time in the last century, surpassing even the 1920’s. The graphs show this is not merely a matter of all the rewards of the recent recovery going to the top. As Eduardo Porter outlines it in brief, we are enduring a 30-plus-year stagnation of the middle-class. Bishops are speaking out on this. For many, a long lament on our “new Gilded Age” leads to a hope for a revival of Catholic social teaching. Even Catholic conservatives are taking note that “trickle-down” theories of dealing with poverty are failing. Michael Peppard and Michael Sean Winters have both recently commented that taking this problem seriously is both urgent and yet very difficult. (It is being made much more difficult by our absurd politics. But that would be a different post.)

It’s a difficult problem because we are long on lament, but really short on solutions that pay attention to the specific dynamics of our economy as it exists now. It is a truism that military leaders often “fight the last war” rather than the present one – so too, Catholics and their allies in fighting poverty can fall into talking about solutions that sound like “fighting the last economic war” – namely, that of the early 20th century.

Ever since World War II, Americans have wanted to believe in an economy where growth would lift everyone, so long as certain structures of government and unions existed. The drastic reduction in poverty in this era had a great deal to do with the emergence of a social security and pension system in which the elderly went from being the most to the least impoverishment group – and of course it had a lot to do with America’s unchallenged dominance in the world economy, the use of a lot of cheap and plentiful fossil fuel, and a cultural ethos of solidarity inherited from the struggles of the Depression and the war.

Our problem now is that “more of the same solution” won’t work… and we are very reluctant to understand and acknowledge this. Why won’t it work? The best explanation of this problem still lies in a prescient book from the mid-1970’s by economist Fred Hirsch, called The Social Limits to Growth. As opposed to the rising popularity of what became “Reaganomics,” Hirsch’s book provides a different and very sophisticated two-pronged critique of the possibility of sustaining the “economic growth for all” Keynesian model that predominated in the post-WW2 situation. These two prongs are the “social limits to growth” – that is, limits on the extent to which economic growth powered by individual self-interest produces collective well-being.

The first prong is purely structural: as economies develop, a larger and larger proportion of spending is devoted to what Hirsch calls “positional goods” – goods or aspects of goods that are sought simply for the position they provide relative to others. By definition, “more” of these goods cannot be produced, because at least part of what is being consumed is the relation of the good to others’ goods. If everyone spends for better interview suits, no one actually is better off, since everyone merely holds position – but resources are diverted uselessly to this “expenditure arms race.” The most obvious example is housing markets, where location and (especially) schools drive prices up disproportionately, and therefore force people to divert larger portions of their income to keep up. Note that this phenomenon need not be attributed to envy or superficial status – it is a rational response to the fact that, as we surpass a basic level, more people have more resources to spend in achieving the things related to position.

In such a novel situation, collective solutions to problems become more pressing. The problems increasingly become “smart-for-one, dumb-for-all” problems, or problems of securing reasonable social equity by restraining useless and wasteful relative competition. However, here is the second prong: the very pursuit of individualistic self-interest that drives the earlier growth depletes what Hirsch calls the “moral legacy” which functions internally to restrain all-out destructive competition. As he puts it, “Management of the system has become more necessary but the entrenchment of the individualist ethos makes it more difficult.” Indeed, since social scarcity of relative goods increases pressures on even relatively successful individuals, they do not see it as in their self-interest to restrain their pursuit, since others will not do so. So the proportional shift to positional goods exacerbates the tendency to pursue private self-interest, at the very moment when what is needed is collective action to restrain the competition.

Once one grasps this two-pronged problem, it is amazing how many social issues can be seen in this light. Environmental issues evidently require collective restraint, lest individuals (or individual companies) who try to restarin themselves “fall behind” their competitors. Adequate health care for all is threatened by constantly-rising costs as people seek the “best” care, oblivious to costs from which they are shielded by insurance. Education costs for college rise exponentially, because the better the school, the better the position coming out – and the competition is then pushed “downward” into rising housing prices and property tax rates for the “best” primary and secondary schools. Unionized workers demand promised pension benefits that cities can no longer afford, undermining the viability of current services. Perhaps even more strikingly, large companies must become ever-more dominant in their own markets, even if they face only one or two other competitors who will take advantage of any non-self-interested behavior. Paying CEO’s a huge premium makes sense (presuming they are actually good CEO’s), because if your business has a revenue of tens of billions of dollars, paying the CEO an extra $10 million will keep him/her from going to a competitor. In all these areas, collective restraint would make sense overall – since these changes simply funnel money to the top – but individual restraint is risky at best, and potentially fatal at worst.

Hirsch criticizes the Keynesian solution, because its supposed advantage – that altruistic “motivation could be subordinated to results,” meaning the results of aggregate economic increase lifting all – only holds for a short period, and unfortunately fosters the illusion that if we simply push the self-interest strategy and then “fine-tune” the overall economy, we will all be better off. Hence, once that strategy reaches its limits (which it does gradually as consumption shifts toward positional goods), the social ideals of collective restraint have been lost amidst a heightened sense of overall entitlement.

In light of Hirsch’s critique, the tendency of progressive liberals to advocate for essentially redistributive solutions to inequality thus have two effects. One, they produce a vigorous social backlash (already true with Reagan, and only more so now), and two, they can’t be sustained insofar as the redistribution is aimed at getting people goods that are at least partially positional. This is why liberals face problems on health care and can’t seem to find a way to meet environmental issues on any sufficient scale. The Affordable Care Act, while it has elements of genuine collective management, such as mandates to limit insurers’ profits, force pooling, and the like, is largely an attempt to bring health insurance to many more people by providing large subsidies for coverage. No one quite knows what will happen in this situation, but everyone agrees that there had better be cost containment, or else the whole thing is going to become very expensive. A fully-managed system would almost certainly reduce costs (as is evidenced in virtually every other developed country), and it would do so specifically by eliminating the many “expenditure arms races” that are present in the existing system. On environmental issues, the problem is (ironically) that vigorous redistribution would almost certainly result in MORE environmental problems, not fewer, since at present there are considerable restraints placed on many carbon-intensive expenditures simply because people don’t have the money. The easiest solution to environmental problems – a carbon tax and stiff regulation – would almost certainly fall disproportionately on those who already spend more of their income on fuel, transportation, home heat, and the like. Here again, the solution is collective action to manage the key issues of transportation, home size and efficiency, and business operation – but these are resisted as fiercely as the idea that you might not be able to choose your own doctor.

Perhaps the gravest example of these limits to growth is seen in the ongoing loss of smaller, local and regional enterprises, at the expense of large, centralized operations. There is nothing inherently virtuous about small banks or small hardware stores or small coffee shops – it can be argued, for example, that larger businesses can often pay employees more and provide access to cheaper, higher-quality goods. But what they certainly do is eliminate a lot of mid-level jobs – because that’s how their prices are lower. They invest in machines and in high-level management, and they hire the cheapest unskilled labor – and leave out a lot of the higher-paying mid-level jobs. (Even large universities are like this, with a few star faculty and a lot of adjuncts!) Indeed, many of the surviving mid-skill jobs have done quite well – teachers and nurses, who require education and cannot be replaced easily by machines or unskilled labor, now command genuinely solid incomes in the 60-80K range, far better than 1970’s pay, and exactly the range in the present economy that would support the kind of lifestyle once promised to the industrial assembly-line worker. Yet the stall in public-sector hiring in the recent recovery has meant that even these jobs aren’t expanding.

There is tragically little conversation about structural changes that would work against the problems with a McDonald’s/Walmart/Google/Amazon economy. Some of it – such as a $15/hour wage for fast food workers – verges on defying economic gravity. Other pieces – such as “getting health care costs under control” – would seem to endanger one of the few sectors creating jobs. And other pieces – such as the aforementioned Porter article – sing the praises of the very technological developments and expectations that kill mid-skill jobs. (Think about all those “meter maids” who no longer go around to parking meters because of smartphones.) For a long time – perhaps since the dawn of industrialization – it has been an axiom that technological advance displaces workers through production efficiency, but that they find work elsewhere, in new, even more creative areas. But perhaps it is time to face the fact that such a process is not indefinite, is not a law of gravity, but applies under specific sets of circumstances. This makes the problem of inequality more difficult. But it pushes us beyond mere lament.

About the Author

David Cloutier is associate professor of theology at Mount St. Mary’s University and editor of He is the author of The Vice of Luxury (2015), Walking God's Earth: The Environment and Christian Ethics (2014), and Love, Reason, and God's Story: An Introduction to Catholic Sexual Ethics (2008). In fall 2016, he is starting a position at the Catholic University of America.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

David - extremely thought-provoking.  I couldn't agree more that liberals (and conservatives) are fighting the last war.

If I may toss another idea into the mix: another reason for at least some of the pain you describe is that the 'market', whether it is a consumer market for final goods and services, or a labor market, or the 'market' of contributors to environmental degradation, has become the planet.  For workers in particular, the effects are profound.  The labor supply market for US employers for many types of jobs and professions, both skilled and unskilled, now  encompasses huge numbers of workers in places such as the Indian subcontinent, the Pacific Rim, Central America, North Africa and Eastern Europe - a large multiple of the workers who reside within the borders of the US.  A 'loss' for workers in the US, such as the closure of a manufacturing plant, may be a 'win' for workers in India or China, to where the manufacturing is moved.  The impact on wages is significant - both for the US worker, who faces downward pressure that may be without precedent, and for workers in these other geographies, who are enjoying prosperous times, perhaps also without precedent - and is likely to take decades to sort out.

Inasmuch as Hirsch points to a collective action/cooperation imperative for solving these difficult problems, the transnational (and transcultural, translingual, transhistorical etc.) aspect of them seems to pose obstacles that we haven't done a very good job of overcoming.  As hard as it is to get everyone rowing in the same direction in the US, it's harder still to get many nations to agree (and to comply with what they've agreed to).  The US can enact fair wage laws and environmental protection laws, but because US laws aren't in effect outside the borders of the US, in neither example will the underlying causes be addressed, or will be addressed only very partially (the part that is within the US).

And how Catholic social teaching, whose concern spans both the local community and the human race, balances these developments, also is not clear to me.



“For a long time – perhaps since the dawn of industrialization – it has been an axiom that technological advance displaces workers through production efficiency, but that they find work elsewhere, in new, even more creative areas.”


We have come into a new era. People and planet are desperately in need of restoration. We have nearly run out of planetary resources. We recycle and remake what we have used and used up. Restoring habitat for animals and animals, land, waterways, oceans, air quality, the atmosphere, and planetary infrastructure, as best we can,  --  this is the new task for the twenty-first century. People are organizing but many more workers are needed. Voting responsible people into office will facilitate the process. Rapid, effective, rational organization needs to be implemented more and more. It’s happening but needs to be compounded.

One possible solution to some of the structural problems David describes: a guaranteed minimum income. Milton Friedman was for it. So are some on the far left—for reasons this article explains:

Entitlement to a substantial universal grant will simultaneously push up the wage rate for unattractive, unrewarding work (which no one is now forced to accept in order to survive) and bring down the average wage rate for attractive, intrinsically rewarding work (because fundamental needs are covered anyway, people can now accept a high-quality job paid far below the guaranteed income level). Consequently, the capitalist logic of profit will, much more than previously, foster technical innovation and organizational change that improve the quality of work and thereby reduce the drudgery required per unit of product.

But David's at least right to question the prevailing wisdom among policy-makers, according to which new technologies create as many jobs as they destroy and the jobs they create are always better (better paid, more challenging and enjoyable) than the ones they destroy. As Peter Frase has pointed out in this piece I keep linking to, technological change could lead to more than one kind of future, depending on how we respond to the change politically.

Thanks, Matthew, for the reference to the Frase article. However difficult it is to find an alternative to the apparently unsustainable and morally repugnant pracitces of today's version of global capitalism, it is important for some thinkers to try to think through possible alternatives. I myself don't see any plausible alternative yet, but that's not a good reason to encourage ongoing searches for alternatives. And it is also important to keep making the point that any economic system and its practices ought to be subject to some meaningful political control that gives weight to the common good and the dignity of every human being. It is not absurd to continue to hunt for some econoomically viable socialism that is consistent with Christian social justice principles.

Humans need to work, not just for financial support but for the good of their souls.  And the human creative spirit will generate ideas for business that will generate jobs.  And human nature, inasmuch as the economy of salvation allows the vicissitudes of our fallenness to continue to exist alongside our being saved (or at least some of us being saved), will prevent any utopias from being realized.  

Capitalism is still the least bad way to proceed.  Cooperation of the sort envisioned by Hirsch (as described by David in this post) may be possible under a capitalist system, but it requires a massive alignment of self-interests.  There are times when this happens.   Governments can help this alignment to happen through their policies.  One way to think about the political failure of Obamacare, so far, is that its authors and supporters haven't convinced all of the various segments and blocs in the polity that its self interests are aligned.  

An example of this policy failure on the part of Obamacare - essentially, a central-planning failure - is the unintended consequence of employers shifting full-time workers to part-time status.  Here is another example: earlier this evening, I watched a Jon Stewart rant (not funny, and quite angry) directed toward Republican governors and state legislatures that have refused federal funds under Obamacare to expand Medicaid (26 states, a majority, fall into this category), even though the federal funds would cover 100% of the states' share of the expansion for the first three years.  At face value, this particular Obamacare policy seems to be a well-planned policy, but as an example of the sort of coordination advocated in David's post, it fails, and the reason fails is that the Republican state officials, for whatever reasons (not all of which were surveyed by Stewart) don't perceive that their interests run with this policy.  The policy aligns many interests, but fails to align the interest of a critical and powerful constituency, and so as policy it fails.  

In the grand scheme of things, and despite conservative rhetoric, Obamacare is a relatively modest social entitlement, in that it provides health care coverage only to a small set of Americans, and leaves most of the health care structure in place and intact, and its cost, as a percentage of GDP, is quite small (and even as a percentage of the federal government budget, it is not large).  Yet already, while still in its infancy, it is illustrating the limits and risks of centralized planning.


Matthew -this heading, from Frase's article, tickled me:

Egalitarianism and abundance: communism

George Orwell imagined a possible socialist future in 1984.  Kurt Vonnegut imagined a possible future of capitalism with excess labor  - a sort of enclave society - in Player Piano.   I'd like to find a path that doesn't go in either of those directions.


George Orwell was a socialist, even when he wrote 1984. What he imagined in that book was a totalitarian future.

As for humans needing work in order to flourish, this is true if we define work as productive activity. It is not true if we define it the way it is defined in our economy: as the surrender of a certain amount of one's time in exchange for a wage. Many human beings have flourished without that, and many still do. Notice that according to that second definition, what the traditional "homemaker" does—cooking, cleaning, sewing—is not work because it is not compensated, while standing in a line as a proxy for some rich person who has more profitable things to do with his time counts as work if the rich person pays you for it.

George Orwell was a socialist, even when he wrote 1984. 

1984 is devastating specifically because Orwell held no Utopian delusions about socialism, or his experience and observation of the 20th century stripped away whatever delusions he may have had earlier in his life.  The Brotherhood evolved into Big Brother.  Art reflects life.


And yet he remained a socialist. Why? Because, unlike you, he did not equate socialism with "Utopian delusions." 

what a the traditional "homemaker" does—cooking, cleaning, sewing—is not work because it is not compensated, while standing in a line as a proxy for some rich person who thinks he has better things to do with his time is work if the rich person pays you for it.

Housecleaning, child care, lawn care - these are all things we can do ourselves, or, if we have the requisite disposable income, we can hire others to do them.  It's work either way, and from an economic point of view, it is compensated in some way, even if the 'wages' aren't in hard currency if we do it ourselves (there are opportunity costs and cost savings if we do them ourselves rather than pay others to do them, and there are considerations of utility that motivates our choosing to do some or all of these things ourselves).  From a social justice point of view, these types of jobs are among those that are available to workers who are unskilled and uneducated.   I'd define it as "productive activity" regardless of who does it and regardless of what form the compensation takes.

In the world of commerce, many managers and executives (mostly men) used to have, and some still do have, assistants and secretaries (mostly women) who did work - typing, filing, answering phones, making appointments and so on -  that the execs could have done themselves but for reasons of time and relationship management and/or social convention chose not to.  (Even though my entire career has been a string of jobs which, had I held them 50 years earlier, would have meant having a secretary, I've never had one - except at church :-).)  Being an assistant or secretary is the equivalent of "standing in line as a proxy for a rich person who thinks he has something better to do."  Some assistant jobs actually pay pretty well, and while many didn't and don't, they were and still are considered gainful employment, they contributed to the well-being of the enterprise, and they helped support a person and/or her family.  Many women and men find the work enjoyable, challenging and fulfilling.  By any reasonable measure, it constitutes productive work (as confirmation that this really is work, I encourage you to ask some secretaries :-)).

At any rate, I admit I've completely lost track of what any of this has to do with Hirsch and social cooperation to solve social problems, but it's fun to think about these things.


Orwell was and is a puzzle.  But I doubt anyone with his powers of observation he would have characterized communism as "Egalitarianism and abundance". 


Jim and Matthew, Orwell knew that all ideologies, including the one that holds that socialism is Utopian delusions, are swindles. He knew that before he went to Catalonia, which is why he ended up fighting "as" an anarchist. He remained a socialist -- despite George F. Will and the cadre on the right who have adopted him now that he can't answer back -- because he was a decent person with a respect for other decent people and he couldn't buy into salvation through education.

It might have been nice if he had run into the right kind of Cathoolics, but the ones he knew were mostly of the apologetisc-writing variety, and the only one of those he had any use at all for was GKC. I sometimes wonder what a meeting would have been like. I doubt they would have connected.

But I doubt anyone with his powers of observation he would have characterized communism as "Egalitarianism and abundance".

Right, because for Orwell communism meant Communism—as in the Soviet Union. For Peter Frase it evidently means something else. Insofar as "egalitarianism and abundance" is a pretty good description of what Marx himself meant by communism, I don't think you should dismiss Frase's formulation so breezily.

Of course, Orwell wasn't a Marxist. (He and his first wife named their dog Marx.) But this just goes to show that the geneology of socialism is much more complicated than many people think. There was socialism before Marx; there were non-Marxist socialists after Marx (Orwell, for example); and today, more than twenty years after the fall of Soviet Communism, there are still socialists who reject some or all of Marx's theories.

So if Orwell hated Stalin and had no time for Marx, what kind of socialist was he? When Jim introduced Orwell's name into this discussion, I happened to be reading Coming Up for Air, whose narrator is a lower- middle-class insurance salesman living in the suburbs of London. Here he is on real-estate developers and the false consciousness of people like himself.

Of course, the basic trouble with people like us, I said to myself, is that we all imagine we’ve got something to lose. To begin with, nine-tenths of the people in Ellesmere Road are under the impression that they own their houses. Ellesmere Road, and the whole quarter surrounding it, until you get to the High Street, is part of a huge racket called the Hesperides Estate, the property of the Cheerful Credit Building Society. Building societies are probably the cleverest racket of modern times. My own line, insurance, is a swindle, I admit, but it’s an open swindle with the cards on the table. But the beauty of the building society swindles is that your victims think you’re doing them a kindness. You wallop them, and they lick your hand. I sometimes think I’d like to have the Hesperides Estate surmounted by an enormous statue to the god of building societies. It would be a queer sort of god. Among other things it would be bisexual. The top half would be a managing director and the bottom half would be a wife in the family way. In one hand it would carry an enormous key—the key of the workhouse, of course—and in the other—what do they call those things like French horns with presents coming out of them?—a cornucopia, out of which would be pouring portable radios, life- insurance policies, false teeth, aspirins, French letters, and concrete garden rollers.

As a matter of fact, in Ellesmere Road we don’t own our houses, even when we’ve finished paying for them. They’re not freehold, only leasehold. They’re priced at five-fifty, payable over a period of sixteen years, and they’re a class of house, which, if you bought them for cash down, would cost round about three-eighty. That represents a profit of a hundred and seventy for the Cheerful Credit, but needless to say that Cheerful Credit makes a lot more out of it than that. Three-eighty includes the builder’s profit, but the Cheerful Credit, under the name of Wilson & Bloom, builds the houses itself and scoops the builder’s profit. All it has to pay for is the materials. But it also scoops the profit on the materials, because under the name of Brookes & Scatterby it sells itself the bricks, tiles, doors, window-frames, sand, cement, and, I think, glass. And it wouldn’t altogether surprise me to learn that under yet another alias it sells itself the timber to make the doors and window-frames. Also—and this was something which we really might have foreseen, though it gave us all a knock when we discovered it—the Cheerful Credit doesn’t always keep to its end of the bargain. When Ellesmere Road was built it gave on some open fields—nothing very wonderful, but good for the kids to play in— known as Platt’s Meadows. There was nothing in black and white, but it had always been understood that Platt’s Meadows weren’t to be built on. However, West Bletchley was a growing suburb, Rothwell’s jam factory had opened in ‘28 and the Anglo-American All-Steel Bicycle factory started in ‘33, and the population was increasing and rents were going up. I’ve never seen Sir Herbert Crum or any other of the big noises of the Cheerful Credit in the flesh, but in my mind’s eye I could see their mouths watering. Suddenly the builders arrived and houses began to go up on Platt’s Meadows. There was a howl of agony from the Hesperides, and a tenants’ defence association was set up. No use! Crum’s lawyers had knocked the stuffing out of us in five minutes, and Platt’s Meadows were built over. But the really subtle swindle, the one that makes me feel old Crum deserved his baronetcy, is the mental one. Merely because of the illusion that we own our houses and have what’s called ‘a stake in the country’, we poor saps in the Hesperides, and in all such places, are turned into Crum’s devoted slaves for ever. We’re all respectable householders—that’s to say Tories, yes-men, and bumsuckers. Daren’t kill the goose that lays the gilded eggs! And the fact that actually we aren’t householders, that we’re all in the middle of paying for our houses and eaten up with the ghastly fear that something might happen before we’ve made the last payment, merely increases the effect. We’re all bought, and what’s more we’re bought with our own money. Every one of those poor downtrodden bastards, sweating his guts out to pay twice the proper price for a brick doll’s house that’s called Belle Vue because there’s no view and the bell doesn’t ring—every one of those poor suckers would die on the field of battle to save his country from Bolshevism.

So Orwell was impatient with those who imagined that the only alternative to Bolshevism was capitalism—or at least the capitalism of prewar Britian. And I think it's fair to say he would have been impatient with those who urge us to tolerate capitalism, if not to embrace it, on the grounds that it's "the least bad way to proceed."


If I am not mistaken, Orwell's first published article appeared in G.K.'s Weekly.

Matthew, Thanks for the reminder. I had completely forgotten that. "A Farthing Newspaper" from GK's Weekly (while he was still signing as Eric Blair) is the first published entry in the collected essays. That might help explain why he cut Chesterton some slack while foaming at the mouth over Ronald Knox in his later columns.

Too bad this discussion has become an argument about what Orwell said or did not say. Children starving and people left homeless and unemployed without any societal effort to alleviate their pain and suffering is simply morally wrong. Various practical solutions, mostly temporary aid of some sort, have been available since the 1930's. Socialism, communism, capitalism, and other -isms are just straw man arguments fogging up our view of how to respond to human misfortune and pain. Let us bring our Catholic social teachings and values of the dignity of work and human rights to bear on these problems and put aside all the political rhetoric. In the end when the Lord asks us, He will be very unimpressed with our Republican, Independent or Democrat heresies. Reread Matthew 25 - What excuse can we make?

Mr. Evans,

Straw men don't fog anything; and capitalism, communism, and socialism are not straw-man arguments. They are historical facts. There have been flesh-and-blood Communists and capitalists, just as there are flesh-and-blood Christians. Orwell, a socialist, took a bullet in the neck to fight fascism. Nor are political parties heresies, any more than vegetarianism is a heresy. Not everything that isn't spelt out in sacred scripture is a heresy. On the other hand, anything that anyone believes in, including Catholic social teachings, can be dismissed as an "-ism": one man's CTS is another's paternalism. Nothing is preventing you from doing whatever you can to help the poor personally. But if you want a "societal effort," as you say you do, you will have to muster some political ideas, whatever you choose to call them. Personal charity and social justice are not incompatible, but they are different, and neither replaces the other.

for Orwell communism meant Communism—as in the Soviet Union. For Peter Frase it evidently means something else. Insofar as "egalitarianism and abundance" is a pretty good description of what Marx himself meant by communism, I don't think you should dismiss Frase's formulation so breezily.

Citing the authority of Marx doesn't cause me to award the citer an imprimatur of non-dismissibiity.  But I took Frase to mean, not necessarily that communism would cause egalitarianism and abundance (although it seems he may think so), but that communism would be a humane system if we could somehow bring about, simultaneously, a situation in which our society is both egalitarian and abundant in resources and necessities.  My own view is that bringing about states of egalitarianism and non-scarcity is neither possible nor desirable.  Fairness and prosperity seem more within reach.  Let's shoot for those.


When Jim introduced Orwell's name into this discussion, I happened to be reading Coming Up for Air,

Thanks for that passage.  Not necessarily his best, but even when he was being didactic and tiresome, he was a wonderful writer.


For what it's worth, let me recall Karl Mannheim's classic "Ideology and Utopia." Very roughly speaking, idelolgies draw on memories of the  PAST and make stronger claims for the policies and practices their adherents endorse than the evidence supports. Utopians develop imaginative alternatives to present policies and practices and make stronger claims for the preeferability of their imaginative alternatives than therre is good evidence for.

In any even mildly vibrant institution there will be some reasons that encourage ideological thinking and others that encourage utopian thinking. If tempered by an admission that the available evidence never warrants the complete rejection of either of these tendencies, then there can be healthy, productive reeform. Otherwise, therre is delusional thinking about the adequacy of one's position is quite likely.

Balancing in oneself and one's associates these two tendencies is an ongoing task of practical wisdom and the humility to acknowledge the ineliminable fallibility of all claims about the worth of one's reflections on practical matters.

Very interesting discussion - and thanks for the link to the Frase article, which certainly stimulates thought. It seems unlikely to me that there will be any "one" solution on the level Frase posits. The "socialism" that he describes (egalitarianism plus material limits) is the most obviously attractive choice, and indeed looks a great deal like the most advanced European states. But (as Jim P pointed out initially) these achievements are constantly threatened by external global factors - how much does Europe depend on Russia for energy? On the United States for defense? On hotly-contested immigration for labor in the wake of declining birth rates and aging populations? And how secure can any "socialist" state be when corporations are so mobile... and the retirement savings of significant swaths of the population are tied up in their profitability? Matt is right to say that the solution here is ultimately political. But part of Hirsch's point is that the very strategy of growth we pursued eroded the possibility of any real politics of shared restraint and sacrifice - as is evidenced by the unseriousness of BOTH parties in addressing the inequality program with anything like the medicine that would be needed.

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment