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January 17, 2014 9:47 AM Virtue, Vice and Inequality

By Ed Kilgore

As regular readers know, I have a issue with the tendency of conservatives to identify wealth with virtue and poverty with vice. It adds insult to injury to blame the poor for their difficult situation, and encourages greed and the abuse of power among those who already possess it.

And it’s just historically wrong, too. I often ask if many millions of people suddenly lost their moral fiber when the Great Depression and the Great Recession threw them out of jobs. In a rebuke to David Brooks today, Robert Kuttner at TAP makes the same argument from the opposite perspective:

The funny thing is that whenever sensible policies produce episodes of full employment, as in the late 1990s, the long postwar boom, or the World War II economy, the supposedly feckless poor get decent jobs and their incomes go up. Cultural deficits are a handy alibi for bad economic policies.

You don’t have to deny social dysfunction as a bad thing in order to recognize that powerful economic forces both help cause it and more often transcend it. Moreover, bad as economic policies often are, government has a better record in macroeconomics than in identifying and rewarding virtue or discouraging vice (particularly the non-violent kind). The idea that inequality reflects some sort of natural or divine moral judgment—and thus cannot be addressed without invoking a natural or divine backlash—lurks behind most conservative arguments against redistribution. It’s an offense to biology and to theology. There are plenty of efficiency arguments for tolerating inequality. Conservatives should stick to those.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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