January 24, 2014 by David K. Sutton
Economic Inequality Is A Clear And Present Danger To American Democracy
The phrase “clear and present danger” is the standard by which freedom of speech can be abridged. As the saying goes, nobody has the right to shout “fire” in a theater. The United States Supreme Court began citing this standard in 20th century rulings, reaffirming that freedom of speech stops at the point where it puts pubic safety in peril. The idea is controversial, but it should be understood that constitutional rights are not absolute. Whether you agree with this standard as it applies to freedom of speech, is of little importance here. It only matters that you understand what it means, because economic inequality is a clear and present danger to American democracy.
Economic inequality touches everything. From the nutritional benefit of the food one can afford, to the education one has access to, vast inequality in America offers extreme advantages to some, acute obstacles to others. Most of us know this is the case, but it seems some on the Right refuse to acknowledge it, or say we should not talk about it out of a fraudulent fear that it will divide Americans. Well, I hate to break it to you, but we are divided, and ignoring it doesn’t change the fact that people in this country are divided by an immense chasm separating the “haves” and the “have nots.”
This is not about envy. That’s another tired refrain of the Right. Most Americans are fine with the idea of becoming wealthy off an idea. If you start a business and that business is successful, you should be rewarded. But where does it end? Is there no limit? To be fair, it’s not like we are going to legislate a legal limit to wealth. In a country where a moderate pragmatist like President Obama can be labeled a socialist, it’s simply not practical. But we can and we should tax wealth, and at a good clip. It’s the only reasonable way to channel some of the capital generated in our unequal economy into places that allow for greater equality of opportunity.
There aren’t many in America advocating wealth redistribution as a means to equalize outcomes. Most people would consider this unfair. But is the current economic system fair? Is the so-called “invisible hand” of the “free” market even close to fair? Could we be doing a lot better than we are now?
Absolutely there should be accountability, and people should be rewarded for their hard work and their productivity. But our current capitalist system all too often rewards people on the merits of their wealth and power and not the actual work they do, and it certainly doesn’t do a cost and benefits analysis to determine how best to use the capital created from economic growth. And no, I don’t think some government bureaucrat should be charged with figuring that out, but in the richest country on Earth, where tens of millions are in poverty, and many don’t know how they are going to put food on the table, it’s clear some of this capital needs to be diverted to make sure all Americans at least have the ability to live without suffering.
It’s going to be a tough sell. It will involve lots of kicking and screaming and name-calling. And it will be a big challenge because our government is increasingly run (or bought) by wealthy and powerful forces lobbying for status quo. But you bet your ass we should be taxing the rich. Yes, we should tax those who have most profited from our economic system. And yes, we could be doing a lot more to bridge the distance between haves and have nots.
Because if we do not, the poor will continue to get poorer and their ranks will grow as more middle class families slip into poverty. And with a shrinking middle class comes shrinking demand for products and services, and in turn, a shrinking economy. The super wealthy might be able to shield themselves when another Great Recession (or Depression) hits, but what about the rest of the country? That is why economic inequality is a clear and present danger to America. Because if our economic system fails, it will be in the wake of our failed democracy.