In spite of Barack Obama’s 2013 declaration that inequality is the “defining challenge of our time,” we remain paralyzed in our inability to have productive conversations about it, especially when it comes to gaps in education, wealth and income along racial and gender lines. Those on the political left argue that inequalities represent acute social problems, which demand immediate action. Those on the right have more muted reactions and are less likely to advocate for aggressive governmental responses, particularly programs that redistribute wealth. Moreover, in 2016, differences between Democrats and Republicans on whether the government should reduce income inequality were at their highest level in over thirty-five years. This is in spite of evidence indicating that Americans across the political spectrum don’t actually want equal distributions of, for instance, wealth or income; they just don’t want the degree of inequality we currently have.
What accounts for these different reactions? Are those on the right simply selfish and unfeeling towards the poor and oppressed? Or are those on the left blind to how the world really works? These caricatures are simplistic and yet they reflect what many people think. We argue that sharp differences of opinion on social inequality arise from disagreements on three issues:
- Moral priorities: disagreement over how to define social problems based on different moral intuitions.
- Causes: disagreement over the causes of inequality.
- Plausible solutions: disagreement over solutions not only because they differ on the two items above, but also because they diverge on whether we have the ability to engineer solutions to complicated social problems.
With regard to the first issue, moral foundations theory (MFT), a framework developed by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues, is instructive. Haidt identifies six moral concerns (or foundations), which people differentially draw on in shaping their political opinions: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, sanctity/degradation and liberty/oppression.
Briefly, care/harm is activated when we see vulnerable groups threatened or harmed. Fairness/cheating is activated when we see individuals or groups get what they don’t deserve. Loyalty/betrayal is activated when we see individuals put their own interests before those of the groups to which they belong, and can be manifested, for example, as disloyalty to one’s nation. Authority/subversion is activated when we see individuals disrespect authority figures and traditions. Sanctity/degradation is activated when we see individuals behave in impure ways, including by desecrating sacred objects. Finally, liberty/oppression is activated when we see individuals use their power to oppress others or limit their freedom.
Haidt has shown that those on the political left place great weight on the care/harm foundation, and give additional support to the fairness/cheating and liberty/oppression foundations, while those on the right place more equal weight on all six. Those on the left, for example, are more likely to support protections for undocumented immigrants, as they are concerned by the harm caused to individuals who are deported. Those on the right might, instead, draw upon other moral foundations, such as respect for authority, which includes following laws and rules regarding immigration and loyalty to one’s nation. They see illegal immigration (or overstaying visas) as a threat to the system as a whole. Consider the following headlines:
The first comes from left-leaning Vox and the second from the right-leaning National Review. The first draws on concerns about the wellbeing of migrants, while the second taps concerns about fairness and cheating.
The left also is drawn to welfare policies designed to reduce harm, such as increases in aid for the poor. These policies require resources and are typically funded through redistributive taxing. Those on the right oppose such policies for a variety of reasons but, with regard to moral foundations, their concern is with people who cheat and abuse the system (the fairness/cheating foundation) and they often argue for lower levels of redistributive taxation (the liberty/oppression foundation). Indeed, evidence suggests that people aren’t concerned with only inequality per se, but with fairness, which is inconsistently measured through equality of outcome or equality of opportunity. By contrast, liberals are willing to tolerate some level of cheating and higher taxes if the programs funded aim to reduce human suffering.
Overall, those on the left are concerned with social inequalities—including racial, gender, and class inequalities—and are therefore more likely to advocate for progressive social policies, than those on the right, who would balance concerns about inequality against compelling concerns about how such policies might conflict with other moral obligations.
We have dueling narratives about the causes of inequality in the United States. For the sake of brevity, and because they are of fundamental concern to many, we focus here on racial and gender inequality. On the one side are those who emphasize the causal role of discrimination in producing unequal outcomes. For example, a 2018 report issued by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, entitled “Still a Man’s Labor Market: The Slowly Narrowing Gender Wage Gap” highlights the importance of discrimination in producing a wage gap (though it also notes the role of lower labor force attachment among women) and concludes that, from a policy perspective, “strengthening enforcement of equal employment opportunity policies and Title IX in education is … crucial to narrowing the gender wage gap further. Improved enforcement will help women enter higher-paying fields that are now, despite decades of progress, still too often off-limits to women.”
Likewise, studies of racial inequality often highlight the role of racism in causing disparities. For example, a New York Times article, summarizing a research paper by economist Raj Chetty and co-authors, reports in its headline, “Extensive Data Shows Punishing Reach of Racism for Black Boys.” The research itself focuses on how black boys earn less in adulthood than white boys. The authors do not observe discrimination directly, but infer that discrimination is important because they are able to consider many factors, such as family background and neighborhood of residence, in their analysis. The Times article includes the following comment:
‘One of the most popular liberal post-racial ideas is the idea that the fundamental problem is class and not race, and clearly this study explodes that idea,’ said Ibram Kendi, a professor and director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University. ‘But for whatever reason, we’re unwilling to stare racism in the face.’
The countervailing narrative holds that gender and racial inequalities are explained by factors other than racism or sexism. The gender pay gap is explained by the choices men and women make about what they study in college, their subsequent careers and the amount of time they choose to devote to working versus caring for family members. Specifically, men more often choose to major in fields with greater market value than women (such as engineering and computer science), more often work in jobs that have higher wages because they would otherwise be undesirable or hazardous (e.g. logging workers, roofers), and more often work longer hours than women.
The choice explanation can be applied to racial inequality as well. For example, it has been shown that, regardless of racial background, people who follow the success sequence, graduating from high school, getting married and having children—in that order— become more financially well off than those who do not. Racial inequality, according to this view, is a function not of racism but of cultural and behavioral differences between groups regarding the emphasis placed on education and marriage, which affect the choices people make and the financial outcomes they reap.
Empirical evidence on these perspectives is less than definitive. While studies document that discrimination has been important in explaining the gender wage gap in prior eras, they also show that its effects have declined over time, though perhaps they have not disappeared altogether. The reason why men and women choose different college majors and occupations is still a topic of considerable debate, with those on the left arguing that such differences are themselves evidence of inequities further upstream. Women may be actively dissuaded from or otherwise made to feel unwelcome in certain majors and jobs, and gender-based socialization may play a role in funneling men and women into different career (or non-career) paths. Those on the right may not deny that socialization plays a role but they often note that today there are few practical constraints on the choices individual women can make. Some also point to evolutionary biology and psychology in explaining differences in such choices. For example, some evidence suggests that men are by nature more interested in objects, and thus are more likely to become engineers, while women are more interested in people, which is why they are more likely to become teachers. The precise role that socialization plays, and the extent to which it is shaped by evolutionary forces, has not been resolved, leaving people to their own preferences and biases in adjudicating between these causal stories.
With regard to racial inequality, there is little debate about the principal role that racism has played in preventing upward mobility among blacks throughout history. The Civil Rights movement and subsequent legislation helped reduce racial discrimination, but many argue that discrimination and systemic racism still hinder socioeconomic achievement among blacks and other minority groups. Discrimination can be difficult to directly observe and prove, though audit studies, in which blacks and whites with nearly identical resumes apply for jobs, have found that blacks are still disadvantaged in the labor market. Of course, the pervasiveness of discrimination could vary considerably across industries and occupations; minority group members may actually have an advantage today in industries where there is considerable demand for greater diversity and representation, such as in academia, high tech, and the media. However, the current research examining the role of race in these industries has been limited.
Cultural variation may also explain differences in average socioeconomic outcomes. But this notion is fraught, as it has sometimes been invoked to blame the victim, by seeming to hold poor people accountable for their poverty, while ignoring the broader structural forces that might be at play. Nevertheless, ethnographic research and journalistic accounts have shown that cultural values and lifestyles, such as a weak work ethic and non-marital childbearing inhibit upward mobility among some groups, such as blacks in low-income neighborhoods or whites in isolated rural communities. Importantly, it may not be culture alone, but rather culture interacting with structural circumstances, such as depressed economic conditions, that matters most. This is precisely the complexity of understanding we need to—but seldom do—bring to policy discussions. Culture also provides an explanation for the high levels of educational attainment among Asian immigrants, who highly value education and its potential to foster upward mobility, and communicate this to their children, who in turn put more effort into their schoolwork than their white and other non-Asian peers. As with discrimination, however, the extent to which contemporary inequality is driven by culture remains difficult to quantify.
Returning to the example of the New York Times story about black boys falling behind white boys, it may well be that discrimination fully explains the racial difference in achievement. However, it is also possible that culture (or other factors not related to discrimination) explains the difference—the problem is that neither cause was directly observed in that study. This is the root of the problem: the magnitude of the effect of discrimination in explaining group differences is very likely significantly above zero, but also likely quite short of 100 percent. This vast area of uncertainty perpetuates the protracted debate on what causes unequal outcomes by race, an uncertainty that plagues debates about gender inequality as well.
Finally, people disagree on solutions not only because they employ different moral frames and have different views on the causes of inequality, but also because they differ in the faith they have in human beings to engineer solutions to complicated social problems. Economist Thomas Sowell refers to this as a conflict of visions. Those on the left tend to be more optimistic about the ability of policymakers to engineer positive social outcomes. Those on the right, on the other hand, tend to be skeptical of government interventions and believe that policies to reduce inequality often not only fail to achieve their goals, but sometimes have unintended consequences, such as the fostering of dependency, and making things worse for all, including the intended beneficiaries.
Part of this difference in visions rests on whether we view people as blank slates who are amenable to change through social planning and psychological engineering. If inequality is a function of oppressive forces, then we are morally obligated to do what we can to reduce it. To endorse this approach—as do many on the left—is to believe that people and institutions can be changed for the better and that human beings are capable of engineering that change. In contrast, those on the right are more likely to see society as the outcome of an eons-long balancing act, so that any changes implemented by human beings must be approached with caution, in order to avoid unintended consequences. If existing inequalities are a function of deep-rooted cultural norms and, in the case of gender, evolutionary processes as well, then all change must be implemented slowly and carefully in order to give the society a chance to adapt and to systematically address any unintended consequences that may arise. This view is inherently conservative (in the sense of seeing the good in the ways of the past), and therefore leads to an underestimation of the role of negative forces, such as racism and discrimination, as causes of inequality.
The rise and expansion of the welfare state is a result of the view that individual suffering due to inequality can effectively be reduced by redistributing resources from the wealthy to the less well-off. Welfare policies, of course, vary considerably. Some, such as social security, function as social insurance, whereby one pays into the system at one point in one’s life, in order to withdraw later when the need arises. Other programs are more purposefully redistributive, such as cash welfare payments to poor families and housing assistance programs. Still others are regulative in nature, such as setting a minimum wage.
These programs have done much to reduce financial insecurity and help families in desperate need. As such, they have met the moral imperative of reducing harm by meeting the short-term needs of people in crisis. Their redistributive nature has also effectively reduced poverty among some groups, such as the elderly, many of who depend on social security and Medicare. Those on the left point to these successes as evidence that we can reduce income inequality, and that additional well-implemented programs can further reduce it, as well as reverse persistent racial and gender inequality.
However, those on the right are often concerned about the long-term consequences of such policies. Yes, cash welfare assistance helps families in difficult times, but over the long run, it may incentivize self-defeating behavioral responses. As such, many of these programs represent moral hazards. Some commentators, such as Sowell, have argued that the welfare state has served to undermine the economic foundations of families, and blame these policies for the weakening of the black family in the last half of the twentieth century. According to this view, the rise of the paternalistic welfare state actually exacerbated racial inequality. Regulative policies can likewise have unintended consequences. Efforts to increase the minimum wage, for example, can render some businesses unable to cover labor costs, leading them to employ fewer people. This hurts low-wage workers by reducing the number of opportunities available to them. According to this view, the well-meaning regulatory state impedes economic activity and reduces growth and standards of living for everyone over the long run. It causes rather than reduces harm.
Debates about these issues will not be settled by empirical research. Certainly, there have been demonstrations of the effectiveness of specific policies and interventions, and some have been found more effective than others in meeting their intended goals. But to understand the long-term effectiveness of the suite of policies that comprise our welfare state is beyond the current technical ability of economists and other social scientists. And so debate rages on.
As our society has become more polarized in recent years, constructive discussions about inequality have become more elusive. Specifically, for those on the left, a singular view of harm and oppression has led to a blind spot for other moral concerns. Thus, those who favor deporting illegal immigrants, who are against affirmative action and who seek to reduce the size of government seem not only selfish, but also, in discussions of racial and gender inequality, racist and sexist. Further complicating this issue is that a small but vocal minority on the right actually is motivated by base intentions (such as racism and sexism). Nevertheless, the moral certitude of the left has contributed to the stifling of discussion and debate in institutions where the left holds power, such as academia and mainstream media. We must return to a place where we can have open and honest conversations about inequality if we are to better understand its origins, consequences and what, if anything, to do about it. Perhaps by recognizing the potentially obfuscating roles of moral, causal and solution pluralism in our public discourse we may one day learn how to speak across those divides in order to achieve what we would all agree is the ultimate goal: a fairer, safer, freer and more humane society for all.