Friday, September 15, 2006


Inequality and Democracy

One of the reasons - only one, but for me a central one - why economic inequality matters is that it translates into political inequality. Many people like to argue that economic inequality is unimportant of itself. What matter if the gap between the rich and the (relatively) poor gets wider so long as those at the bottom are themselves getting richer? Fewer would defend a situation where, say, some people were, by virtue of their wealth, entitled to more votes than other people. (As was the case, indeed, in local elections in some places until not too long ago.)

But, of course, in practice economic inequality is not insulated from political equality - in fact the former fatally undermines the latter. Basically, the laws of the land and policies of the government apply equally to all (except where they don't of course, which tends to reinforce my point...), yet a rich person enjoys a far greater input into the process that leads to the formation of those laws and those policies.

Bradford Plumer mentions various ways this comes about:

1) "elected officials tend to hail from the upper classes". This is spectacularly true in the US where, Plumer informs us, "[i]n 2003, financial records revealed that 40 senators [out of 100] and 123 representatives [out of 435] were millionaires." My calculator makes that 40% of the Senate and 28% of the House of Representatives (sic). Although I hear they pave all sorts of shit with gold over there, I presume that the proportion of the American population who are millionaires falls significantly below these figures. I don't have figures for any other countries, but I think it's safe to say that the situation is likely to be similar (though less extreme in most, or at least most non-Third World, cases) in every country. Certainly, in Ireland, while our politicians are rarely super-rich, they are comfortably better off than the median citizen.

With the best will in the world (and there's no reason in the world to suppose this is present too often) how likely are such people to identify with the poor as much as they do with, well, people like them?

2) The better-off are more likely to vote, to understand the political system (and thus to know how to interact strategically with the system in pursuit of their interests), to be politically engaged. Their wealth gives them greater access to education, to culture, to leisure (which, for present purposes includes politcal activity), to energy, to confidence and eloquence. In all these ways they tend, by virtue of their wealth, to be better equiped to state their case, and indeed to understand their own case in the first place. (One is reminded of the old quip that "speaking truth to power" is a waste of time since the powerful usually have a decent idea of what's going on, at least compared to the more-likely-to-be-deluded powerless...)

3) The rich have more money than the poor, and thus politicians and parties dependent on private donations have a greater interest in taking their views into account than those of the poor.

These are all deeply, deeply important points to make about the practice of bourgeois democracy, if I may so call it. They are probably especially important if one is looking for explanations as to why inequality in America is so much greater than in other countries, and, particularly, why it is so much more flagrantly promoted by its government - its politicians are richer, the gap between the political participation of rich and poor wider and money plays a more important part in the political-electoral process.

But I think these points somewhat miss a more fundamental point, which is this: not only does the political process tend to be corrupted by the fact that it exists within the wider socio-economic system (with all its inequalities); so too does the state itself - control of, or influence over, which is the "prize" of the political process - exist within the context of that system. That is to say, the state is itself dependent on the smooth running of the capitalist economy for its own revenues.

But of course, the "smooth running of the capitalist economy" is to a large degree in the hands of the capitalists. Private, profit-driven control of investment decisions means the state has a structural interest in maintaining general conditions of profitibility - or face the fiscal (and political) consequences of capital strike and flight. Thus even if:

1) policymakers were universally from the lower classes,
2) political participation was equally accessible to and equally accessed by every social class,
and 3) private funding of political parties was abolished

the political system's formal equality would still be drastically undermined by the ability of capital to determine the range of economically plausible policies.

Whether this constitutes a "threat to democracy" or not I'm not sure. If that phrase connotes an explicitly authoritarian regime (via military coup for example) it would really depend on the state of opinion among the economic elite - the willingness, in 1973 and after, of the Chilean elite to countenance authoritarian means to protect its interests certainly meant that its disproportionate power was a threat to democracy. If it connotes a threat to the normative content of democracy I wholeheartedly agree, but it kind of makes the question less important, since I think that egalitarianism is probably itself (one of the things) at the heart of "the normative content of democracy" anyway.

You have to express more your opinion to attract more readers, because just a video or plain text without any personal approach is not that valuable. But it is just form my point of view
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