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Inequality Can Be a Good Thing


Contrary to popular belief, inequality—as opposed to ideological equality—can contribute to a well-ordered society. 

This article is part two of a three-part series on inequality, especially in light of the new bestselling book, Capital in the Twenty-First Centuryby Thomas Piketty. In part one, Allan Carlson asks conservatives to take Piketty’s recommendations seriously.

Inequality can be a good thing.

That is, in part, what Russell Kirk teaches us about equality in his magnum opus, The Conservative Mind.

Kirk endorses a "conservatism of enjoyment" that has "affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence," and appreciates that human society cannot be rearranged according to some abstract principle like equality without destroying important components of a full life. This necessarily means there will be “inequality,” for people choose different ways of expressing their values or principles, and society should allow them to do so. Kirk opposes this enjoyment in what may be termed a true diversity against the "narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems." Such radicalism sees humanity through a particular prism and forces all society through it.

This skepticism toward abstract notions such as equality continues a long line of conservative criticism of equality, which is too often used to destroy real living human communities in favor of government action. From Rousseau to Marx and now to Thomas Piketty (the French economist who penned the new unlikely bestseller Capital in the Twenty-First Century), liberalism is wrong on equality.

But equality also has a central place in “classical” liberal thought—what many today would identify as libertarianism, or economic conservatism. In the classical liberal telling—from John Locke to his modern libertarian descendants—inequality is also an evil. Therefore, all inherited or nonmarket bonds of society must be weakened or eliminated so we can all be “equal” in a free and unfettered market environment and reap the benefits of capitalist “creative destruction.”

Modernity is basically in agreement, then, that inequality is a bad thing, but with two different solutions to the problem: one, the utopian vision best described by Marx, and the other a defense of free markets most identified with Locke and his ilk.

The trouble is, universal equality—by government edict or economic opportunity—has not been achieved. And in the pursuit of equality, we have sacrificed freedom. As Tocqueville saw, we have moved from an open society where each may seek and find his place to an oligarchic society enforcing a sham equality on the populace. Or rather, it is a true equality, but that of the slave or subject of an empire rather than that of a free citizen. Kirk echoes Tocqueville: “This is a planners’ society, dominated by a bureaucratic elite; but the governors do not form an aristocracy, for all the old liberties and privileges and individuality which aristocracy cherishes have been eradicated to make way for a monotonous equality that the managers of society share.”

The flaw of egalitarian ideology is that it pretends that is not the case. Indeed, Kirk goes further. In an essay on capitalism, he writes:

Tocqueville pointed out a century and a half ago how dangerous the doctrine of equality is, and how difficult to resist -- even though it leads toward universal boredom and decadence. In democratic times, many people are ashamed of being different from others; and many more people are envious of those who truly are different. Especially there prevails envy of men and women of wealth, or fancied wealth—an emotion deliberately worked upon by the communists. To set up Holy Equality as a moral principle supplies the envious with a self-righteous apology for their consuming vice.

Few people care to admit to themselves, “Being envious, I covet my neighbor’s goods.” But put the matter after this fashion: “I learn from Karl Marx that inequality is caused by capitalism, private property, churches, and other evil institutions. I want justice for the people! We need a revolution.” Thus personal envy is veiled by an ideological pretext—which may be used to justify murder on a large scale. Ideology of this sort salves one’s conscience.

When confronted with both modern liberal and classical liberal teachings on equality, Kirk is unhappy with both. Leftist equality fosters envy; classical liberalism, greed. Both reduce the variety of human goods to a utilitarian calculus.

Kirk, then, levels an attack on the ideology of equality root and branch. So what can we say for inequality?

Kirk endorses inequality for its own sake, against both modern and classical liberal thought. He states even more explicitly in The Conservative Mind that a stable society requires orders and classes, not the false notion of a “classless society.” In one sense, this is a healthy development; the American tradition of self-government depends to some extent on the conviction that all citizens have equal voice and equal ability to pursue their own happiness. But the idea that some fully equal condition can apply to all in the same way at the same time is an illusion, and a dangerous one.

To be sure, Kirk was no apologist for what he termed the “malefactors of great wealth,” and his condemnation of the American businessman of the 1950s and 1960s for a mindless consumerism remained part of his conservative critique of modernity. Kirk in fact may have had some sympathy for Piketty’s position, though not his solutions. Private property is a bulwark for inequality: if people are sure in their possessions, they are more free. But modern inequality, the kind that forces the poorest among us into the ghetto, is based on access to wealth and government preferment, and is an evil. But the type of “inequality” Kirk writes of has more to do with liberty and enduring norms of culture than economics or politics, strictly understood.

Kirk’s aristocracy, in a democratic age, is not a collection of landed squires, but rather the free men and women who lead every community, people like his own ancestors in the small towns of Michigan. Every society has orders and classes; they are inherent in human society. Peter Augustine Lawler echoes this sentiment in an Intercollegiate Review article on the conservative merits of Downton Abbey. For Kirk, having a varied, diverse, unequal society does a number of things. First, it protects us from state depredation. Through features like federalism (which treats the states differently from one another, and as a whole differently from the national government), we cannot all be treated like “equal” cogs in a centralized machine. A focus on the “variety and mystery” of human existence also saves us from the capitalist extreme of treating all things “equally” only insofar as a monetary value can be assigned to them. A poem and a securities derivative are “unequal,” but both have value because each is a creation of man.

But Kirk does have a concept of nonideological equality, and it fits perfectly with his defense of inequality. Kirk tells us to focus on those aspects of equality essential to a stable social order. “Ultimate equality in the judgment of God, and equality before courts of law, are recognized by conservatives; but equality of condition, [conservatives] think, means equality in servitude and boredom.” An earlier edition of The Conservative Mind was even more severe on this point: “the only true equality is moral equality,” Kirk wrote in the fourth edition, and argued that all attempts to enforce an equality of condition or result by positive legislation will end in despair. Efforts to destroy “natural distinctions” will result in tyranny, with what Kirk calls a “Buonaparte” to fill the vacuum.

Kirk’s point about moral equality should not be underestimated or dismissed as window dressing. Respecting the moral equality of all people is a hard-won achievement of Western civilization, thanks to Christianity and the British common-law tradition, among other elements. A slavish devotion to equality, paradoxically, destroys that moral respect. In either the right- or left-wing version of equality, people become reduced to economic and political units, and not neighbors or friends worthy of respect.

Kirk speaks to us from outside the matrix constructed by our egalitarian ideology. Our culture is so saturated with talk of equality that we hardly notice its radical implications or how at odds it is with the conservative tradition. That some naturally assume government should intervene to cure “inequality” and condemn or punish those it deems its opponents shows how far Tocqueville’s predictions have borne fruit. The rest of us assume that if we let democratic capitalism reign, inequality will join communism is the dustbin of history, and that will be a good thing: no more classes, no more aristocratic fantasies. That, some conservatives tell us, is the beauty of America. Kirk, and other conservatives, reminds us that while modern inequality can be an evil, inequality itself need not be, and while equality can be a good when directed toward ends other than the moral nature of man, it can also be an evil.

Gerald J. Russello is editor of the University Bookman ( and author of The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk.


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