Sometime in the second half of the nineteenth century, the single greatest economic asset in the rich nations of the world became the human capital of free workers. This set in motion a series of epochal moral, social, and economic transformations whose full effects are being felt only today. The internal economic inequality that increasingly plagues rich nations is among the most important of these.
No thoughtful person can applaud the new economic inequality. But it remains intensely difficult to say--with factual precision and moral clarity--just in what ways and for what reasons the inequality is wrong. The nature and causes of economic inequality have been transformed since the middle of the last century, and familiar progressive moral and political arguments against economic inequality no longer suit current conditions.
Perhaps most importantly, meritocracy--which for generations opposed economic inequality--today exacerbates inequality. Meritocratic education, in particular, gives contemporary economic inequality a snowball character. Prior inequalities engender new ones, of ever-increasing size. In fact, meritocracy today functions much as aristocracy did in a prior, land-based economic order--as an ideology that serves to legitimate an otherwise offensive distribution of advantage.
Daniel Markovits is Guido Calabresi Professor of Law at Yale Law School. He works in the philosophical foundations of private law, moral and political philosophy, and behavioral economics.