When Freedom Threatens Social Stability

George Packer enumerates a long list of “technological advances that make life easier, tastier, more entertaining, healthier, longer; and socio-political changes that have made the [United States] a more tolerant, inclusive place”:

The bottom line in all these improvements is freedom. In America, that’s half the game.

The flip side:

[W]hen the results are distributed as unequally as they are at this moment, when the gap between promise and reality grows so wide, when elites can fail repeatedly and never lose their perches of privilege while ordinary people can never work their way out of debt, equal opportunity becomes a dream. We measure inequality in numbers—quintiles, average and median incomes, percentages of national wealth, unemployment statistics, economic growth rates—but the damage it is doing to our national life today defies quantification. It is killing many Americans’ belief in the democratic promise—their faith that the game is fair, that everyone has a chance. That’s where things have unquestionably deteriorated over the past generation.

Samuel Goldman argues that social equality actually encourages economic inequality:

[I]t is hard for a society characterized by ethnic and cultural pluralism to generate the solidarity required for the redistribution of wealth. People are willing, on the whole, to pay high taxes and forgo luxuries to support those they see as like themselves. They are often unwilling to do so for those who look, sound, or act very differently. In this respect, the affirmations of choice and diversity that now characterize American culture, tend to undermine appeals to collective action or shared responsibility. If we’re all equal in our right to live own lives, why should we do much to help each other?

Which is where my libertarianism cedes to conservatism. At some point, freedom must be tempered if its impact undermines the very social contract that allows it to exist. The inequality we are experiencing as a function of globalization, technology, recession and a tax system so complex it beggars understanding is a real and direct threat to our social coherence and stability as a democratic society. It seems to me conservatives should be among the first to recognize this danger – as Bismarck and Disraeli once did – and forge a public policy to counter it.

This conservatism would embrace universal healthcare as a bulwark of democratic legitimacy in an age of such extremes; it should break up the banks and bring back Glass-Steagall; it should drastically simplify the tax code, ridding it of special interest deductions; it should construct an international agreement to prevent the egregious and disgusting tax avoidance of a company like Apple; and it should seek to invest and innovate in education and infrastructure.

Some of this inequality cannot be stopped, the globalizing forces behind it are so strong. But mitigating its damage is a real challenge. And conservatives who believe that we are one nation should rise to it.