Abandoning the Liberal Quest?

(A review essay on The End of Equality (Mickey Kaus, Basic Books, 1992)

Pat Duffy Hutcheon, Perspectives on Political Science (Fall 1994)Vol. 3, no. 4, p. 174-7.

KEY TERMS: Mickey Kaus -- money equality -- social equality -- tax and transfer -- universal entitlements -- the public sphere -- the universal draft -- public schooling -- the culture of poverty -- the work test -- universal day care -- meritocracy -- incentives -- role-desirability quotients

The discussion opened up by Kaus with this thoughtful book is one for which the time is ripe in North America. It forces liberals to re-examine their prejudices and commitments, while at the same time building bridges for meaningful dialogue with those conservatives who are similarly concerned about justice and fairness in modern industrial societies. If he had been addressing his book to a broader international audience, Kaus might have felt impelled to include the socialist Left within the scope of liberalism. The fact that he did not implies that he considers the command economy and centralized role-assignment required by socialism to have been sufficiently discredited that Americans would no longer consider it a viable road to social reform. Accordingly, he begins with the assumption that liberals have no choice but to accept capitalism.

The author's argument goes as follows: (1) liberals in the United States are now caught in a bind because while, historically, they have been committed to the goal of "money equality", it now seems indisputable that modern capitalism contains certain imperatives that tend to increase income disparities within a population; (2) liberals have clung to a policy of income redistribution by taxation as the sole means of correcting this trend and achieving their political goal; (3) there is now mounting evidence that such a policy cripples productivity (when carried beyond certain limits), corrupts society (as a result of tax evasion by the affluent and the angry recognition of this by the working poor) and is becoming increasingly impossible politically; (4) therefore egalitarian reformers must recognize that the trend toward ever-increasing money inequality is irreversible. They should abandon "money liberalism" with its inflexible program of "tax and transfer", and focus instead on the fight for social equality -- which they can do something about.

The ideal of social equality, says Kaus, is really what has distinguished the United States from older countries ever since its inception. Money equality became the liberal goal precisely because it was thought to be essential to the realization of the social equality so essential to the American dream. But Kaus maintains that the dream can and should be sought directly, regardless of what is happening to incomes. The achievement of social equality, he says, is possible only by salvaging and maintaining three inherently equalizing institutions: the draft, the public sphere, and universal access to quality schooling. In their exclusive emphasis on money equality, liberals have allowed these vital institutions to be neglected and, to a large degree, destroyed. Even worse, as he points out, many liberal policies have been instrumental in that very destruction.

Since the debacle of Viet Nam, the US has joined many other industrial democracies in moving to a professional, volunteer armed force. According to Kaus, the result has been that the burden of defending the country's interests and its democratic ideals (with the risk to life and health that this entails) has fallen almost exclusively on the working class, while the affluent and professional youth have been free to opt out in order to pursue more lucrative and prestigious careers. This, in turn, has meant that the social diversity formerly characteristic of the armed forces has virtually disappeared, and the military experience is no longer an egalitarian and democratizing one. Kaus recommends the re-institution of the universal draft -- one which would allow no exceptions on the basis of social power -- but for the purpose of some sort of national service as well as defense. He points out that there is no shortage of work to be done, so long as the wages are restricted to those minimal levels that will keep the national service socially affordable. He seems to imply that the armed forces section would be selected from willing members of the larger national service, and would be trained and rewarded accordingly.

Kaus recognizes the precipitous destruction of the public sphere as the most crucial of the problems to be tackled, in that it is the only arena where people of all income levels can mix together throughout life, and share equally in the common good. He cites two major causes of this decline: suburbanization and the overwhelming encroachment on urban public spaces by criminals and the homeless. Rather than merely deploring the trend toward the formation of urban jungles alongside the affluent ghettos of suburbia, Kaus looks to the cause of this process. He finds it in the creation and perseverance of the "culture of poverty", and the fact that the underclass carriers and victims of this culture have proliferated within the inner cities -- rendering these areas dangerous and corrupting places in which to live. And he marshals compelling arguments to show that what perpetuates the underclass as a definable and imprisoning entity, is the very welfare system that liberal ideology has created and kept in place these many years. He shows how this is a "want" rather than "work" oriented welfare system which -- in a radical departure from Roosevelt's guidelines -- punishes responsible, honest and industrious behavior and rewards laziness, crime, desertion and illegitimacy. He maintains that the biggest mistake ever made by liberals was to abandon Orwell's and Roosevelt's distinction between work and non-work and to try to build equality of citizenship, not on joint contribution to the common good, but on the universal receipt of government hand-outs.

Kaus maintains that welfare -- as a dole unconnected to a demonstrated ability and willingness to work -- must go. "Underclass culture", he says, "can't survive the end of welfare any more than the feudal culture could survive the advent of capitalism." He concludes that, regardless of what happens to incomes, liberals should (1) accept as their most pressing policy objective, the goal of lifting individuals and families out of the culture of poverty, rather than sustaining them within it; and (2) jettison their inflexible and illogical commitment to a means that not only does not work to reduce the underclass, but is actually expanding it and rendering it ever more intractable.

Kaus recommends the "work test" for all able-bodied, would-be recipients of government resources. The government would have to be responsible for providing employment programs for the poor, and what would amount to a minimum guaranteed income for all. He recognizes the many obstacles to his scheme. For example, he cites typical old-line Leftist policies such as granting workers (and professionals -- one might add) various forms of "property rights" in their jobs, and legislation forcing governments to pay higher wages and salaries than do competing private enterprises. Such practices, he maintains, insure that anything done by government will be unnecessarily costly and inefficient. Another problem is how reform can be financed -- in the earlier stages. (He notes that, eventually, the savings from doing away with the currently ballooning costs of increasing welfare and crime would be demonstrably rewarding.) He also mentions the need for universally available day care, and recommends that it be provided at the work place, so that the children of all categories of employees would mix at work and play.

Other means of rehabilitating the public sphere suggested by Kaus are: (1) protecting the democratic integrity of the universal secret ballot by rendering it impervious to the power of money; (2) improving the relative quality and accessibility of network as compared to pay TV; (3) emphasizing public holiday events such as parades and other inclusive community gatherings; and (4) providing some form of universal health care. He reminds us that many of the new and upgraded public forums and services would be provided by the national youth service or those former members of the underclass who would now be employed at a basic wage or in training or apprenticeship for the newly demanded work roles.

The third major source and guarantor of social equality, for Kaus, is public education. He seems to recognize two problems where schooling is concerned -- one apparently irresolvable and the other much more open to solution. The former is meritocracy: the fact that, in tomorrow's world, the most intelligent and highly skilled will be most in demand, and consequently the highest paid and socially prestigious. He wants the destructive effects of meritocracy counteracted, but is not very clear on how this could be done, other than by expanding the arena in which money is irrelevant. The second problem is the current lack of opportunity for quality schooling for the underprivileged. Kaus sees inequality of educational opportunity as so closely connected to the problem of class segregation by neighborhood that both would have to be tackled at once. He suggests: (1) zoning changes that would mix neighborhoods of large and modest housing; (2) a controlled scheme of school choice for everyone, in which the schools would have to select from among their applicants by lottery rather than by marks; and (3) modified "tracking" within schools based on talents in a wide variety of subjects and interest areas.

Kaus discusses the question of whether his recommended "civic liberalism" could be sold by politicians. He realizes that the biggest hurdle would be the ingrained attitudes of liberals themselves. He guesses that the initial cost of his proposals might alarm voters, and offers the idea of a value-added tax as a means of avoiding a possibly unacceptable degree of disincentive for ambitious workers. However, he expresses the belief that ordinary people would respond to an appeal to their common self-interest and that of their descendants -- rather than to the usual cynical appeals to immediate monetary gain. If people could be persuaded that, for once, their tax money would be spent in accordance with their values -- the work ethic in particular -- their support for necessary spending might just surprise traditional liberals. He also has faith that most people would respond to the prospect of a restoration of safe and pleasant public places just as he does. As he puts it, "I would like to live in a society where the sheer volume of interactions between myself and my fellow citizens was vastly greater and more pleasurable than now." He thinks this is an objective that is widely shared and appreciated, and therefore politically viable. And he offers a winning slogan that would be hard to beat. "Billions for workers, and not a penny for welfare!"

What should we make of this book? Certainly we can applaud the courage of a self-defined liberal in tackling the "sacred cows" of North American liberalism in such a forthright manner. This is the sort of radical analysis that has been sadly lacking in liberal circles. But what about his major thesis: that the only way to correct money inequality is by the "tax and transfer" method, and, that -- because this will inevitably fail for economic and political reasons -- the goal of greater money equality must be jettisoned in favor of a direct attack on civic inequality?

In the first place, I believe that Kaus drastically underestimates the cultural causes of the connection between income and all other aspects of social equality -- especially in an immigrant and pioneer society. Social status and power have tended to follow money in modern industrial societies. And they attract it as well. It may not be possible to cut the tie between money and status in North America. The reasons, although complex, are fairly obvious.

One of the most deeply imbedded prejudices in human society is the belief that people who work with their "brains" are more worthy of esteem, and accordingly should be paid more, than those who use their "brawn". This translates into a relatively inflexible income ladder with traditionally established professionals at the top, skilled technicians and managers in second place, white collar workers above blue collar workers, and the "unskilled" (house cleaners and homemakers, for example) at the bottom. Equally intractable is the connection between money and social power of all kinds. Not for nothing do we say that "money talks"! How, then, can we even imagine -- much less achieve -- the kind of civic equality described by Kaus?

It might be helpful to visualize every social role as being tied to a bundle of incentives and disincentives -- all those reinforcing and non-reinforcing consequences attendant on one's performance of the role. These include the following: (1) income (from wages or other sources); (2) degree and relative scarcity of the skills and aptitudes required, coupled with the nature and cost of the necessary training or preparation ; (3) social status or prestige; (4) power to influence events and people; (5) security of tenure and pension, or of life, limb and general health; (6) degree of control over the duration and regularity of one's daily working hours, and of the pattern of work and leisure time involved; (7) psychological esteem (or stress) contingent on an awareness of contributing to and being responsible for the common good; (8) degree of intellectual or physical challenge; (9) special privileges and costs such as potential for public recognition or castigation, opportunity (or requirement) for extended travel, and various subsidized benefits and holidays; and (10) perceived meaningfulness of the tasks assigned or selected. Traditionally, all these have tended to be closely associated. Many are so integrally related to the very nature of the role itself that they are difficult to alter. Mining is inherently more dangerous and less influential an undertaking than is being a Supreme Court judge, for example. Brain surgery is more stressful and subject to shift work than is painting landscapes.

What about Kaus' idea that capitalism, by its very nature, encourages ever-increasing inequality of income? This may be true if one assumes that the particular institutional structure within which American capitalism currently operates is the only possible one. But this structure is defined by a vast network of customs and regulations built up over the years -- few of which are necessary to the operation of a capitalist economic system --and many of which reflect cultural biases and past labor history by favoring certain groups at the expense of others. If competition for roles were instead as unfettered as might be expected in a true capitalist system, all the rewards and "punishments" associated with them would be more or less balanced out by the market. The highest incomes would go to the jobs most difficult to fill, for whatever reason, and the result would be an ever-shifting approximation of general social equality based on all the incentives and disincentives attached to the various roles required for the functioning of society. This approach would never guarantee absolute money equality, but the abysmal failure of Communism in practice surely demonstrates that such a goal is undesirable at any rate, for it can only work by nourishing authoritarianism and corruption. What liberals should seek is a much more inclusively conceived egalitarianism -- one defined in terms of the total desirability of social roles.

But could the competition be made free so that the total desirability quotient of roles would be more or less equal? Would not worldwide competition for scarce abilities, and the differential access to quality schooling that inherited money guarantees, still load the dice in favor of the children of the privileged? Would not the result be the entrenched meritocracy that Kaus expects and fears: the very concept that led to his conclusion that the liberal quest for equality is doomed?

The answer is -- not necessarily. It would all depend on the degree to which quality schooling (including a superior version of something like Head Start) was in fact equally available to all. If it were not, the goal of equality might indeed be foiled by the meritocracy of intelligence feared by Kaus and others. But why should we assume, in a society of equal opportunity for training and education -- of every variety -- that the scarcest and most valued (and therefore most rewarded) skills would continue to be those associated with abstract thought? Most people develop and use very little of their mental potential at present. With really good education for the first time available to all, intellectual skills might well come to be in surplus, while quite different skills could be in short supply. It is possible to imagine a much greater need for those aptitudes required for serving, feeding, inspiring, entertaining, organizing and caring for others; for growing things; for protecting the environment; for policing our cities and keeping our machines running -- not to mention the sheer physical capacity and willingness to do dangerous and mind-numbing tasks. If that should happen, a system of open competition for roles might well ensure that mining is paid more than judging!

Such a system might bring us as close as human beings could ever get to the social equality which Kaus seems to visualize. But we could never arrive at that destination by ignoring the quest for money equality, as he suggests. It is the means of the "money liberals" that have been wrong -- not their goal of a flatter income pyramid! Their mistake was in assuming that the only way to fight increasing income disparity was for government to provide for more and more of the needs of the populace in the form of universal services, and to pay for these by taxing ever more progressively and aggressively.

This particular means to the egalitarian ideal became the foundation of the liberal ideology from the mid-sixties on, and the principles of "universal entitlement" and "tax and transfer" became elevated to the status of sacred cows. What happened to "money liberalism" is what tends to happen with all ideological thinking: the idealistic intent of the proposed solution became everything, while its actual, counterproductive consequences in terms of the original goal were ignored. Kaus, in failing to define the problem accurately at the beginning, is proposing to throw out the baby with the bathwater. In spite of this, however, most of his arguments and proposed solutions are worth considering. This is because they actually address the flaws in the liberal ideological commitment to the strategy of redistribution by taxation -- rather than the liberal objective of increasing "money equality". This is clearly a case where readers can reject the major premise of a book while agreeing with many of its conclusions and recommendations.

The credibility of Kaus' proposals for attacking social inequality does not hinge on his premise that the quest for less income disparity is fruitless. Why not assume that we must continue the battle on all fronts, but with strategies -- such as the incentive-based ones that he suggests -- that have some hope of working? Kaus admits that most of his proposals for reincorporating the underclass and rehabilitating the public sphere would require large amounts of government revenue in their beginning stages. Much of this would have to continue to be raised in the form of income tax. However, with the flatter income curve resulting from a more equal initial sharing of the nation's gross national product, all forms of taxation would appear to bite more fairly.

Kaus has rightly identified the biggest political problem for traditional North American liberalism. It is the well-warranted suspicion of the average citizen that government revenues will not be spent in the service of those core values --such as the work ethic and family responsibility -- that ensure the group's survival over the long term. His proposals could solve that problem and restore the voters' trust. The reduction of income inequality, which is bound to result from real freedom of both opportunity and job market, would alleviate the second biggest obstacle to selling the new liberal approach politically. With the achievement of an egalitarianism based on the total desirability quotient of social roles, most people would be contributing to the common good -- and being paid for it -- and therefore the need for taxes would be considerably reduced. Furthermore, with the pie of national product more equitably shared in the first place, the cost of government would be more equally shared as well.


Reprinted with permission of the Helen Dwight Reid Educational  Foundation. Published by Heldref Publications, 1319 18th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 200-1802. Copyright 19.