Economic Equality as a Prerequisite for American Constitutionalism

Ganesh Sitarman raises the issue of U.S. constitutionalism and economic inequality in a recent New York Times op-ed piece. The piece, in turn, summarizes the main theme of his book, The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution: Why Economic Inequality Threatens Our Republic. While focusing on economic inequality, Sitarman’s argument fits into a broader current of discussion: what social, economic, and/or political prerequisites, characterizing the people themselves as well as their institutions, does republican government require to work tolerably well.

Sitarman’s analysis also fits into today’s political moment as well; a moment in which the question of cultural solidarity is at the fore, and the subsidiary question of the role political, economic, and social homogeneity might play in grounding a tolerably well working republican system.

Early in The Federalist, for example, John Jay argued that the then existing homogeneity of the US suggested “one connected country” fitted to “one united people”: “[A] people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs . . .  To all general purposes we have uniformly been one people . . .”

Jay did not list economic uniformity among his attributes leading to American constitutionalism. Perhaps he could have and, on Sitarman’s telling, perhaps he should have. Sitarman argues that too much diversity in wealth and property threatens the republic. Others argue that too much religious or moral or linguistic, diversity threatens the republic. Still others, too much diversity of manners and customs, presumably brought over from the old country; and even yet others that too much diversity of political orientation threatens the republic. The common theme is that republican solidarity, and hence republican governance, is threatened by too much difference, whether social, political, or economic. Despite its focus on class and economic inequality, Sitarman’s argument seems to be of a weave with this intellectual moment.

The country seems to be groping not only with what its identity is or ought to be, but also with what that identity needs to be to support its historically republican commitments. Sitarman posits that too much economic diversity, too much economic difference, cannot be tolerated consistent with sustaining republican identity. He draws deeply on classical political theorists to advance and defend his hypothesis.

There are several points at which, however, I’d want initially to press and clarify the theoretical foundation of Sitarman’s hypothesis. To start with, he claims that “Our Constitution was not built for a country with so much wealth concentrated at the very top nor for the threats that invariably accompany it: oligarchs and populist demagogues.”

There is initially the issue of threshold. To wit, just how much inequality is too much, and how does he know the amount of inequality today has put us at the threshold of what is too much for “our Constitution”?

I’m not suggesting Sitarman needs to identify a precise Gini coefficient at which point inequality places American republicanism at imminent risk. Nonetheless, one can grant Sitarman’s claims that [A] America has become more economically unequal in recent years, and [B] too much economic inequality threatens American constitutionalism, without also accepting Sitarman’s conclusion, [C] that there is today “so much wealth concentrated” among the rich today that it threatens American constitutionalism.

After all, even at its constitutional founding the U.S. was not an egalitarian paradise. And there’s been varying amounts of inequality over the past 200+ years. So some varying and non-trivial levels of economic inequality must be consistent with some types of robust American constitutionalism. So how does Sitarman know we’re reaching the critical threshold at which point America’s economic inequality threatens the continuation of the republic? I mean, sure, according to the World Bank, the Gini coefficient for income distribution in the U.S. increased from 37.73 in 1986, to 41.06 in 2013. That’s an increase, to be sure. But what’s the argument that republicanism is not threatened at a Gini coefficient of 37.73, but is at 41.06? Even by longer historical measures it seems as though the richest Americans receive a share of income today not seen since the 1920s. But it seems that the U.S. has passed through levels of inequality pretty similar to today’s levels.

What is the causal mechanism that means a Gini coefficient of 37.73 does not threaten American constitutionalism but a coefficient of 41.06 does.

To be sure, Sitarman suggests a causal mechanism: “Oligarchs and populist demagogues.” He adds later, quoting Gouverneur Morris approvingly, “The rich will strive to establish their dominion and enslave the rest.” The theoretical question of thresholds aside, Sitarman’s argument here is strangely undemocratic. In times of great inequality, Sitarman suggests that we lose our capacity to be self-governing; we cede it to the rich. Sitarman, summarizing Morris, writes, “the rich would take advantage of people’s ‘passions’ and ‘make these the instruments for oppressing them.”

So we need a rough form of economic equality, because if we don’t have it, we Americans will be caught up by our emotions, and select rich people to oppress us. Of course, it’s never really “us,” it’s always “them.” Whether the “them” is Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” or Romney’s “47 percent.” Still, the causal mechanism puzzles: Poor people will be democratically suckered by demagogues into giving up their liberties when the economy has a high Gini coefficient, but somehow are immune to them when the Gini coefficient is lower.

Finally, there is the historical argument itself. Sitarman seems to suggest that inequality yesterday is the same as inequality today. And I’m open to evidence on the larger argument. Yet even at first glance, one might be excused for wondering whether changes in the nature of economic inequality between 1790 and today, and changes in the nature of democratic decision making, make arguments relating to economic inequality in 1820, and earlier, to threats to republican governance problematic for straight forward application today.

I do think there’s much we can ask about regarding the role of money in politics. Rent seeking and crony capitalism are rife, and corrupting. And while some may not want legal limits imposed on spending money in campaigns because the cure would be worse than the disease, the fact that the cure is worse than the disease does not mean there is no disease. Still, the hypothesis that today’s level of economic inequality constitutes an imminent threat to American constitutionalism seems a hypothesis that needs both a firmer theoretical foundation and more-plausible empirical support.