Is Democracy Compatible with Extreme Inequality?

Chang Che in Quillette:

In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville took a 10-month trip to the United States to study the American penal system. In the resulting book—Democracy in Americahe singled out one noteworthy feature: “Amongst the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of conditions.” Although he ignored the fact of slavery, his reference to economic equality among white Americans was, at the time, accurate. According to economic historians Peter H. Lindert and Jeffrey G. Williamson, the share of national income going to the top one percent was less than 10 percent.

Today, the share of national income going to the top one percent has doubled, while median wages have remained largely stagnant. In the last 40 years, CEO wages have grown nearly 100 times the rate of wages for average workers. The popularity of left-wing candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders—both with significant redistributive policies at the core of their platform—reflects the moral concerns many have about high levels of income inequality.

But no moral case for economic equality will convince those on the Right. What is at stake is an idea of fairness. It is unfair, so the thought goes, for others to live off one’s labor without making an equally productive contribution to society. This appeal to fairness trumps any moral case for income redistribution. There is, however, another case for relative equality of conditions that appeals to the same idea of fairness that’s appealed to by the opponents of redistribution.

More here.