Equality versus liberty

Which one worries voters most?

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Economic populism is having a moment of celebrity these days. But so is economic gluttony. 

These conflicting impulses – equality versus liberty – have been in constant competition. For some, equality of opportunity and outcomes is the ultimate political value; for others, it is liberty, which is degraded when property rights are too restricted by taxation and regulation.

There is a view in both parties that voters are in an egalitarian mood. I don’t buy it.

The icon of economic gluttony in politics today is Donald Trump, however grotesque and trivial that may seem.  Trump is doing well in the attention-deficit-disordered world of public opinion polls. Yes, it’s a fluke that will pass. Still, Americans admire the mega-rich and don’t resent them. The unprecedented wealth accumulated by the economy’s top 1% in the past few decades without much protest is real world, hard data proof of that.

Economic populism is hot in the form of Bernie Sanders. Sanders stands for old-fashioned Robin Hood egalitarianism – take from the rich and give to the rest. Sure there are other reasons for his boomlet; he isn’t a Stepford candidate and he isn’t Hillary. His message matters though.

It would have been bizarre if no populist wave emerged from the left.

For a decade, there’s been a relentless march of data and reports about the widening gap between the super-wealthy 1% and 99%. The decline of the middle class’ income and wealth since the 1980s is felt by most every voter except the poor, who have had it much worse. The cold facts have begun to turn the American Dream of upward mobility into an American Fantasy.

Yet voters rarely rank inequality high among their worries, so politicians give lip service. They are rarely rewarded when they reach for more.

In December 2013, President Obama, for example, threatened to make income and wealth inequality his new cause. He proclaimed “a dangerous and growing inequality” was “the defining challenge of our time.”

The opposition reacted with predictable scorn. “Obama returns to class warfare as poll numbers plunge,” ran the headline in The Washington Times. The “class warfare” line became the GOP party line. Obama’s populist push pooped out.

But something has changed. It must have, because the rhetoric of 2016 candidates has changed and they are experts at sniffing the wind.

Instead of condemning economic inequality as class warfare, all the GOP candidates condemn it now. So does Hillary Clinton. They point fingers at the other party as the villains.

It isn’t clear, however, that much has actually changed in the voters’ minds during the past 30 years.

According to a Gallup poll in 1985, 60 percent of Americans thought money and wealth should be “more evenly distributed.” That figure has wiggled no more than a few percentage points in three decades. The vast majority of voters believe inequality has grown, but only a slight majority favors policies to redistribute the bounty.

So it’s odd that there isn’t more class warfare talk. What gives? I think two factors are key.

The simple answer is that Americans don’t believe the government is capable of rectifying inequality and don’t trust it with the job.

The deeper answer is that the majority has rarely cared much about economic equality for equality’s sake. Equality of opportunity is deeply valued; equality of outcomes is not. The opportunity to make it big is a potent value that curbs resentment.

What voters care about most is their own economic situation. It’s fine if the 1% get richer so long as the 99% benefit, too.

The candidates of the far right and left are fairly honest about economic fairness. The hard-core libertarians such as Rand Paul and Ted Cruz essentially believe the distribution of wealth and income is not the job of government but free markets.

Bernie Sanders acknowledges that closing the economic gap substantially means soaking the rich; realistically, it can't be done just by marginal increases for the 99%.

The mainstream candidates pretend economic equality can be had without trade-offs. Republicans all acknowledge the severity of the money gap now. Jeb Bush’s view is typical. “We believe the income gap is real, but that only conservative principles can solve it by removing the barriers to upward mobility,” he said. In other words, don’t soak the rich; deregulate and cut taxes.

The Democratic, Hillary-esque solution is increasing the minimum wage, investing in education and infrastructure and tinkering with some of the more egregious tax dodges exploited by, well, the party’s big donors. 

The phony egalitarians, I suspect, know that equality is not what voters care about most. The vocabulary of “the 1% vs. the 99%,” of “economic inequality” is simply the latest variant of the language of money worries.

Politicians promising economic cures are as ancient as the conflict between liberty and equality. Apart from some true believers, American voters trust neither side to deliver them.  But over time, on money matters in this country, equality is trumped by liberty and taxation compromises liberty. That isn’t changing.

[Also by Dick Meyer: High court aligned with public opinion]

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