American thinkers have long perceived a connection between robust democracy and a relatively egalitarian distribution of wealth. For all their differences, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson agreed that property begets power, and both expressed anxiety about excesses of the former unbalancing the latter. In 1785, Jefferson wrote that the consequences of “enormous inequality” were so pernicious that “legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property.” Over a century later, Teddy Roosevelt urged the government to take on “a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power.” “The really big fortune,” he said, “by the mere fact of its size, acquires qualities which differentiate it in kind as well as in degree from what is possessed by men of relatively small means.”
For several decades now, such worries about the corrosive impact of inequality have been largely absent from our politics—even as economic inequality in the United States has increased dramatically, reaching levels not seen since the height of the Gilded Age. Studies on the eve of the 2008 financial collapse showed the top one percent of American households earning over a fifth of the nation’s total income, twice as much as thirty years earlier—and the top one-tenth of one percent taking home six times as much as before. In terms of income distribution, the United...
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About the Author
Eduardo Moisés Peñalver is the Allan R. Tessler Dean of the Cornell Law School. He is the author of numerous books and articles on the subjects of property and land use law.