Editor’s Note: Today’s entry in our forum on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century is by Coleman Drake, a PhD candidate in the division of Health Policy and Management at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. This is the third post in our forum, which kicked off with an introductory post, where you’ll find an index of all the posts in the forum.
Although the polemic surrounding the book would suggest otherwise, Capital in the Twenty-First Century is mostly a descriptive text. Thomas Piketty spends the first two thirds of the book forming a cohesive narrative about the concentration of wealth over the last two centuries in the developed world. To do so, he uses detailed data collected from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Sweden. Only in the last third of the book does he discuss what society should do about the concentration of wealth.
While there is plenty of disagreement about Piketty’s proposed solutions and the causes of wealth inequality, there does not seem to be much disagreement about the future he envisions. The affluent, wealthy, and educated will enjoy a level of opulence never before experienced by all but the richest members of society. Meanwhile, the large majority of the population, i.e. unskilled labor and the non-upper class, will face increasingly perilous financial hardship as wealth becomes more concentrated and their skills become less attractive relative to machines. Piketty places more of an emphasis on wealth as the cause of this brave new world, whereas the libertarian blogger, author, and economist Tyler Cowen, in Average is Over, focuses on the impact of machines and a highly skilled intelligentsia. Yet, they envision a similar, somewhat dystopian future. Cowen goes so far as to describe a future in which everyone who’s not in the upper class will live in impoverished favelas.
The question, then, is what to do about the coming divergence. In an increasingly secular and individualist society, Piketty envisions a communitarian outlook and an activist state as the solution to the plight of the masses. Some, like Cowen, view any attempts to change the course as more disruptive than the potential negative outcomes that could result from a society that has more in common with the Gilded Age than late twentieth century America. Most of us probably fall between these two; together, Piketty and Cowen represent opposing edges of non-extremist American politics.
What the economists do not address, however, is a moral conception of the problem at hand. Piketty is more concerned that wealth inequality is a problem for democracy than it is for the maintenance of a society with a clear moral vision. I find the two problems to be inseparable. For society to cohesively address a world where people are increasingly and more sharply divided by their intellectual abilities, any solution must come with a guiding moral vision. For me, this realization is a frightening one. Just when the developed world is entering into a period of increasing friction and inequality, it is also becoming more individualistic, hedonistic, and areligious.
Perhaps as wealth divisions in society become starker, the broader population will turn to one another through faith and community groups to find a sustainable solution for our society. Yet, if the broader population lacks the cohesive, community-oriented outlook that comes from a benevolent moral vision, how will they proceed to turn to the right solutions? I offer no definition of what solution is correct here, but I do believe that positive outcomes to fractious societal-level disputes are largely dependent upon the discipline resulting from a strong moral vision. The Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr. serves as a perfect example of what is possible; however, that movement was based in an African American community with extraordinarily strong Christian principles. Modern society offers no such parallel. Our challenge, then, is to create such a parallel.