But the turn toward markets was a bipartisan affair. The reduction of federal income taxation began under President Kennedy. President Carter initiated an era of deregulation in 1977 by naming an economist, Alfred Kahn, to dismantle the bureaucracy that supervised commercial aviation. President Clinton restrained federal spending in the 1990s as the economy boomed, declaring that “the era of big government is over.”
Liberal and conservative economists conducted running battles on key questions of public policy, but their areas of agreement ultimately were more important. Although nature tends toward entropy, they shared a confidence that markets tend toward equilibrium. They agreed that the primary goal of economic policy was to increase the dollar value of the nation’s output. And they had little patience for efforts to limit inequality. Charles L. Schultze, the chairman of Mr. Carter’s Council of Economic Advisers, said in the early 1980s that economists should fight for efficient policies “even when the result is significant income losses for particular groups — which it almost always is.” A generation later, in 2004, the Nobel laureate Robert Lucas warned against any revival of efforts to reduce inequality. “Of the tendencies that are harmful to sound economics, the most seductive, and in my opinion the most poisonous, is to focus on questions of distribution.”
Accounts of the rise of inequality often take a fatalistic view. The problem is described as a natural consequence of capitalism, or it is blamed on forces, like globalization or technological change, that are beyond the direct control of policymakers. But much of the fault lies in ourselves, in our collective decision to embrace policies that prioritized efficiency and encouraged the concentration of wealth, and to neglect policies that equalized opportunity and distributed rewards. The rise of economics is a primary reason for the rise of inequality.
And the fact that we caused the problem means the solution is in our power, too.
Markets are constructed by people, for purposes chosen by people — and people can change the rules. It’s time to discard the judgment of economists that society should turn a blind eye to inequality. Reducing inequality should be a primary goal of public policy.
The market economy remains one of humankind’s most awesome inventions, a powerful machine for the creation of wealth. But the measure of a society is the quality of life throughout the pyramid, not just at the top, and a growing body of research shows that those born at the bottom today have less chance than in earlier generations to achieve prosperity or to contribute to society’s general welfare — even if they are rich by historical standards.
This is not just bad for those who suffer, although surely that is bad enough. It is bad for affluent Americans, too. When wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few, studies show, total consumption declines and investment lags. Corporations and wealthy households increasingly resemble Scrooge McDuck, sitting on piles of money they can’t use productively.
Willful indifference to the distribution of prosperity over the last half century is an important reason the very survival of liberal democracy is now being tested by nationalist demagogues. I have no special insight into how long the rope can hold, or how much weight it can bear. But I know our shared bonds will last longer if we can find ways to reduce the strain.
Binyamin Appelbaum (@BCAppelbaum) is a member of The New York Times Editorial Board and the author of the forthcoming “The Economists’ Hour: False Prophets, Free Markets and the Fracture of Society,” from which this essay is adapted.
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: email@example.com.