Inequality and democracy

Of the features of modern society that exacerbate that fear and threaten that hope, the distribution of wealth may not be the most important. Money matters to people, but status matters more, and precisely because status is something you cannot buy. Status is related to identity as much as it is to income. It is also, unfortunately, a zero-sum game. The struggles over status are socially divisive, and they can resemble class warfare.

Ryan, in his book on Marx, makes an observation that Marx himself might have made. “The modern republic,” he says, “attempts to impose political equality on an economic inequality it has no way of alleviating.” This is a relatively recent problem, because the rise of modern capitalism coincided with the rise of modern democracies, making wealth inequality inconsistent with political equality. But the unequal distribution of social resources is not new. One of the most striking points Piketty makes is that, as he puts it, “in all known societies in all times, the least wealthy half of the population has owned virtually nothing,” and the top ten per cent has owned “most of what there is to own.”