Inequality and Social Cohesion

I read this:

I think that living in an extended, law-bound, commercial society is deeply unnatural, and the product of many generations of work. Aspects of human nature are an acid that constantly undermines its foundations. Hordes of violent men are always outside the city gates ready to sack it, and those inside always threaten to turn into a mob and destroy it from within. One of many bulwarks against these threats is social cohesion, which is undermined by extreme inequality.

And wonder, is it inequality or absolute poverty that undermines social cohesion? When we think of the French Revolution, “Let Them Eat Cake” inevitably comes to mind, but had the French peasantry miraculously transformed itself into a class of middle income shop-keepers circa 1788, I imagine the monarchy would have hobbled along for another generation or two. Thanks to Jim Manzi’s helpful chart, I’ve also noticed that American levels of income inequality were comparably high during the roaring ’90s. I suspect this went unmentioned at the time because everybody was too busy enjoying broad-based economic growth.

So while I agree with Manzi’s premise – society is fragile; social cohesion is important – I’m not sure if his diagnosis is correct. Wouldn’t it be better to shelve the inequality debate in favor of addressing wage stagnation or the lack of educational opportunities available to lower-income workers? Alleviating either problem would probably do something to reduce income inequality, but I don’t think that should be our biggest concern. If the right policy choices provide broad-based economic growth, I doubt the top one percent’s limitless income will continue to attract the same amount of attention.


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