Jack Kerwick, a commentator for the conservative blog Town Hall, argues that combating "income inequalities" is antithetical to a "free society." Kerwick's column responds to a recent speech that President Obama delivered regarding economic issues.
Kerwick laces his essay with standard rightwing arguments dismiss the significance of income inequality:
Think about this: of all of the problems in our world, the President of the United States and his ideological ilk view the fact that some people earn more than others as the problem, the one next to which all others pale in comparison, “the defining challenge of our time.”
No disciple of liberty can so much as begin to relate to the thought that income inequality is a “problem,” let alone the greatest of problems.Kerwick's comments are susceptible of numerous criticisms. The magnitude of economic inequity raises serious questions about the ability of the United States to compete globally in terms of education and economic productivity. Economic inequity is also linked to crime and ill-health, which greatly impact the nation.
But attacking Kerwick's ignorance of the severe consequences of income inequality is not the purpose of my response. Instead, I write to demonstrate how Kerwick's entire argument implodes in one single passage.
Kerwick believes that addressing income inequity will crush "liberty," by destroying private property, concentrating power into the national government, and, thus, obliterating federalism, checks and balances, and any limitations on the national government. Addressing income inequality would lead to a tyrannical national government.
Kerwick reaches his melodramatic conclusion only by dismissing the role of states and state-national partnerships in the reduction of income inequality. Kerwick contends that "'income inequalities' can be addressed only by a national government, a government in which authority and power are centralized." This utterly false contention destroys Kerwick's entire argument. Numerous examples disprove his contention.
First, the national government often partners with states and local governments to ameliorate the conditions of income inequality and to subsidize poor households. For example, the national government and states partner to administer Medicaid and TANF (what most people describe as "welfare"). The government also provides block grants and other targeted funds to states to fund their own antipoverty programs such as housing assistance and other direct programs for poor people.
Furthermore, the government contributes money to public schools, which states run almost exclusively. Public education is probably the largest shift of income to poor and middle-class people in the country. It has existed since the early-1800s, and it is primarily run by states. Nonetheless, the federal government, recognizing the importance of an educated society, helps to finance public education. Clearly, if making income inequality a concern of public policy erodes freedom, then this process started in the 1800s, not in 2008.
Second, as the provision of free public education indicates, states have led the charge on many issues related to income inequality. States provided "welfare" subsidies to poor people before the national government. Also, every state guarantees a free public education to its residents, but the US Constitution does not (as interpreted by the Supreme Court). Some states even guarantee protection for certain crime victims (e.g., victims of domestic violence), rather than requiring them to pay for it themselves. States also fund and operate institutions of higher education (which also receive national assistance). These measures, which are often secured to individuals by state constitutions, go much farther than federal programs.
Emily Zackin's recent book, Looking for Rights in All the Wrong Places: Why State Constitutions Contain America's Positive Rights (Princeton University Press) provides numerous examples of state contributions to economic rights. These types of rights have a long place in the nation's history. Kerwick's argument that a concern for income inequality would only enlarge the federal government and kill liberty (or that it would erodes the constitutional structure of government) is simply wrong.