I recently became a member of a group (three's a group, right?) that has been having an online discussion about issues brought up in a video-taped dialogue about egalitarianism.
The taped conversation had its bright moments when one of the philosophers stated that she knew a colleague who had left Southern California because, according to her male colleague, the area did not value intellectual competence. Apparently, Southern California culture is more into acquisitions and does not put a premium on academic achievement.
Equality is often based on commonly-held values. If a community values owning things over intellectual ability, it's going to be very difficult to gain equal stature in that culture if you're an ABD history major working as a part-time faculty in a local community college and shop at Wall Mart.
And what about the kid whose parents don't have a high school degree, are both working minimum-wage jobs, and live in a community where the property values are low? How much of an equal opportunity does she have to succeed in an urban school where there's a 40% drop-out rate?
I cite these two examples because they are the two sides of the egalitarian dilemma in the United States.
The first example, the academic guy living in the land of manicured lawns and shiny black BMWs and the second example of the urban kid in a race-to-the-bottom ghetto school both point to the many many varieties of inequality in this alleged “land of opportunity.”
If one of your primary values is an appreciation of ideas, like the intellectual guy who left San Diego, an ostentatious display of wealth is probably going to be viewed as vulgar. On the other hand, the woman from the capital-gains crowd, walking her poodle on its daily constitutional, will probably see a professor's intellectual life as quaint, but useless, and not quite up to the standards of where the real money is. (I make an exception to this generalization if you are a professor in a well-known Ivy League University, particularly Harvard or Yale; the bourgeois crowd is always enamored of universities with big endowments.)
Egalitarianism does have its more subtle edges when you start looking at the variations of these kinds of social/intellectual divides in America. The middle and upper classes may have mortgages, cars, ipads, and even shop at the same food store as the upper classes. But the cracks in the equality-vase between the upper 20% and the middle class begin to show when you start to look at the location of the homes, the size of the mortgages, and the disposable incomes of the very wealthy that enable them to afford second homes, a yacht, and two or three foreign tours a year.
One of the advantages of having a Phd and the potential opportunity of pursuing a tenure-track position in a University town or city that values intellectual achievement is that, at least in theory, you have the ability to move into a more equal playing field. Bottom line, you have a much better shot at succeeding, socially, in an environment where intellectual achievement is valued. And the Southern California gal with the poodle has the freedom to hang out with her gated-community crowd and join a bridge club.
In both situations it is clear that their freedoms are not diminished. They can survive, equally, by having the ability to move freely within their own social groups.
On the less subtle plain of inequality in America is the startling division of economic power between a very small minority and the rest of American society. A recent Federal Reserve's Survey of Consumer Finances, for example, indicates that the top 10% of households owns 72% of the wealth in America. To add insult to injury, the median household income has remained stagnant over the last decade.
On a deeper level in America, the recent OccupyWallStreet protests reinforce another profound example of inequality. Many of the protesters are very clear about their anger over the imbalance of power between the very wealthy and the majority of Americans who are not part of the upper 10% controlling the majority of America's wealth.
On the surface, it is very clear that the protesters are demanding that the entire American system be more balanced and fair, that income-disparities be evened out, that the inordinate power of the plutocrats be diminished.
Underneath this egalitarian quest is the profound unease with many of the core values of capitalism. To many of the protesters it is a model that encourages corporate self-interest and a contemptuous disregard for the working class in America. And it is a model that is seen as responsible for shifting the balance of political power toward the very wealthy and away from working-class Americans, a shift embodied in the famous Citizens United Supreme Court decision. (Unlike the Tea Party, which sees the balance of power shifting towards the national government, the Wall Street protesters see corporatism as the great social and economic pariah in America.)
This imbalance of power between the very wealthy and the middle and lower classes takes another wrinkle in the movement among anti-union and anti-tax groups to strip workers of bargaining rights, particularly in the public sector. Conservative politicians have become the new hacienda and plantation owners of the civil service system in America. They continue to establish top-down mandates by denying civil service workers the right to negotiate salaries, health benefits, and pensions.
The other example of inequality—the child living in a low-income area and forced to attend an inferior school—underscores the vast disparity between the haves and the have nots in America. There is little debate about the relationship between poverty and dysfunctional schools, and yet suburban schools refuse to expand their school districts to be more inclusive. More significantly, the Supreme Court has pretty much denied metropolitan school districts the right to come up with voluntary segregation programs.
Inequality comes in many packages in America. However, if you have the credentials and/or money, you have the advantage of greater mobility than someone who is, literally, stuck in a minimum-wage job.
If you inherited your wealth or watched your wealth grow exponentially through real estate investments or through bonuses and stock options, you probably don't think about how the American capitalist system is becoming more and more rigged to favor the privileged. And, more than likely, you believe, in your heart of hearts, that you arrived at the pinnacle of your economic success by hard work and competence, not because of the other plutocrats you just happen to hang out with.
I don't believe that most Americans are looking for cash-register equality. I have yet to see any groundswell among the OccupyWallStreet protesters that would be in favor of cutting the pie of American wealth equally across every level of American society, even though there is one economic model that advocates a Guaranteed Minimum Income.
What Americans do seem to want is some kind of an economic playing field where all segments of society are treated fairly and that one economic class is not given all the power cards that affect almost every level of American society—from newspapers to school systems, from advertising to cable television shows, from health insurance to pensions.
In the end, most Americans do not want to be led by the plutocrats telling us to “eat cake.”