John Locke (1632-1704) claimed that individuals had the fundamental natural rights of “life, liberty, and property,” and it was the government’s responsibility to protect them. Locke supported economic inequality with his vigorous support of the right to property. There is a limitation or caveat in his statement – the individual is entitled to ownership, but only if this leaves “enough, and as good, left in common for others.” This was intended to ensure that the situation of others is not worsened by one’s appropriation of property. The right to property is central to John Locke’s philosophy; along with the state’s right to protect this property. This stumbling block, or Catch22 – Locke’s sense of justice – is that the caveat does not have a work around from the conservative libertarians – they remain silent on the issue. (The Enclosure Acts of the 18th century, passed by a Parliament controlled by rich landowners, forced poor laborers off the ‘village commons.’ Loss of the rights to the commons (loss of rights to grazing and gathering fuel) meant the difference between a subsistence living, and starvation for the farm laborers. The laborers migrated to the cities to become part of the Industrial Revolution working in industries whose conditions and wages were ‘a little better than slavery’.)
Rousseau (1712-1778) described an endemic moral inequality that was related to power and wealth. He claimed that in the formation of government the property owners (the wealthy) trick the poor into creating a government with the sole purpose of protecting property and locking in moral inequality as a feature of civil society. This social contract is promoted as treating everyone equally, but in reality, it is in the interest of the few who have become stronger and richer through the development of their private property. Rousseau warned that while everyone could not be exactly the same, massive inequality could put liberty up for sale. The poor would be willing to sell their freedom and the rich would be capable of buying it. Both the very rich and the very poor would value money more than liberty.
Over the past 65 years, tax cuts for the rich have been linked to income inequality, but not economic growth. In other words, income disparity was increasing and the middle class shrinking. Three years after the economic debacle of 2008 the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests began – connected by the anger of the common person against the banks for manipulating the system and tanking the economy. The OWS protesters reminded us that, since the 2008 financial debacle, there has been no progress on significant reforms of the financial services industry (to reduce the risk of reoccurrence). OWS challenges the excesses of the corporations in general, and in particular, a government controlled by corporate money and the growing income gap between the very wealthy and the rest in society. OWS educated many more of the middle class that they have been taken advantage of by a financial system that favors the rich – identifing extreme inequality as the hallmark of a dysfunctional economy, and highlighting the failure of the legislators to protect 99% of the people.
In 18th century, Rousseau warned his contemporaries of the limitations of science and politics – that material progress does not necessarily bring moral progress. John Kenneth Galbraith (1909-2006) foresaw the problems caused by globalization and deregulation. He described the ‘economics of abundance’ and warned that individual and societal compliance about economic inequality would have consequences.1 The result of five decades of change to the social contract is severe inequality in the West – the hollowing out of the middle class and a growing income gap between rich and poor. As cultural processes gave rise to the inequalities, Rousseau noted, it would take a change in cultural process to reverse the harmful inequalities. The singular success of OWS is to put inequality on the political agenda.
1 Waligorski Conrad. John Kenneth Galbraith: The Economist As Political Theorist p 64