I’m not in agreement with the overall thrust of Will Wilkinson’s paper on inequality for the Cato Institute, but one point that I think is in the spirit of what he’s saying was brought to mind by a question at last night’s event. The way I would put the point is that it’s a mistake to think of the world as composed of, on the one hand, “economic issues” in which we worry about wealth or income inequality and then on the other hand, “social issues” in which we worry about racism or sexism. Progressives ought to be concerned with a general issue of justice and social inequality, of which gaps in money income or wealth may be part.
And you really don’t want to find yourself suggesting, as I think people sometimes do, that we ought to be monomaniacally focused on the income gap question. After all, consider an African-American woman working as a nurse in North Carolina in the late 1950s relative to a white male executive at North Carolina’s largest bank. There would have been a substantial gap in their incomes. But if you flash forward to today and compare an African-American woman working as a nurse in North Carolina to a top executive at Charlotte-based Bank of America you’ll find a much larger gap.
Thinking about the issue more comprehensively, though, it’s of course clear that the overall gap in social equality between two such people is smaller today than it was in the days when the African-American woman would be explicitly excluded from a wide range of social practices and opportunities open to the banker. I don’t think there’s any reason to believe that the decline of Jim Crow caused income inequality to grow thus forcing us to make an explicit tradeoff, but it’s still worth understanding which aggregate sets of social changes have and haven’t been for the better. What’s more, I have heard credible arguments that the successes of feminism in the late 60s and 1970s did play a role in increasing income inequality. I’m not sure whether or not that’s right, but if it is right you’d still want to say that feminism was an egalitarian force.