There was a bit of media coverage of Hillary Clinton choosing to wear a $12K Armani jacket while delivering a speech lamenting Inequality. The price of this jacket, of course, represents an utterly trivial proportion of the wealth the Clintons have amassed from their lifetimes of Public Service.
This little incident serves to emphasize a point I made several years ago in my post Jousting With a Phantom: leading ‘progressives’ for the most part don’t really believe in anything resembling equality–indeed, quite the contrary.
Consider, for example: Many people in “progressive” leadership positions are graduates of the Harvard Law School. Do you think these people want to see a society in which the career, status, and income prospects for an HLS grad are no better than those for a graduate of a lesser-known, lower-status (but still very good) law school? C’mon.
Quite a few “progressive” leaders are members of prominent families. Do you think Teddy Kennedy would have liked to see an environment in which he and certain other members of his family would have had to answer for their actions in the criminal courts in the same way that ordinary individuals would, without benefit from connections, media influence, and expensive lawyers?
The prevalence of “progressivism” among tenured professors is quite high. How many of these professors would be eager to agree to employment conditions in which their job security and employee benefits were no better than those enjoyed by average Americans? How many of them would take a salary cut in order to provide higher incomes for the poorly-paid adjunct professors at their universities? How many would like to see PhD requirements eliminated so that a wider pool of talented and knowledgeable individuals can participate in university teaching?
There are a lot of “progressives” among the graduates of Ivy League universities. How many of them would be in favor of legally eliminating alumni preferences and the influence of “contributions” and have their children considered for admission–or not–on the same basis as everyone else’s kids? Yet an alumni preference is an intergenerational asset in the same way that a small businessman’s store or factory is such an asset.
The reality is that “progressivism” is not in any way about equality, it is rather about shifting the distribution of power and wealth in a way that benefits those with certain kinds of educational credentials and certain kinds of connections. And remember, power and connections are always transmutable into wealth. Sometimes that wealth is directly dollar-denominated, as in the millions of dollars that former president Bill Clinton was paid in speaking fees last year, or the money made by a former government official who leverages his contacts into an executive job with a “green” energy company–even though he may have minimal knowledge of either energy or business. And sometimes the wealth takes the form of in-kind benefits, like a university president’s mansion. (Those who lived in the old Soviet Union and Eastern Europe can tell you all about in-kind benefits for nominally low-paid officials.) And, almost always, today’s “progressivism” is about the transfer of power from individuals to credentialed “experts” who will coerce or “nudge” people to do what those experts have decided would be best.
To a very substantial extent, the talk about “equality” is a smokescreen, conscious or unconscious, behind which “progressives” pursue their own economic, status, and ego agendas.
Writing in 1969, Peter Drucker–who was born in Austria and had lived in several European countries–wrote about what he saw as a key American economic advantage: the much less-dominant role played by “elite” educational institutions:
One thing it (modern society) cannot afford in education is the “elite institution” which has a monopoly on social standing, on prestige, and on the command positions in society and economy. Oxford and Cambridge are important reasons for the English brain drain. A main reason for the technology gap is the Grande Ecole such as the Ecole Polytechnique or the Ecole Normale. These elite institutions may do a magnificent job of education, but only their graduates normally get into the command positions. Only their faculties “matter.” This restricts and impoverishes the whole society…The Harvard Law School might like to be a Grande Ecole and to claim for its graduates a preferential position. But American society has never been willing to accept this claim… It is almost impossible to explain to a European that the strength of American higher education lies in this absence of schools for leaders and schools for followers.
The “unwillingness of American society to accept this claim”…the claim of elite education as the primary gateway to power and wealth…has been greatly undercut since Drucker wrote. And “progressives” have been among the main under-cutters and the leading advocates for further movement in that direction. The rise of ‘progressivism’ in the modern sense of the word, and the rise of degree-based elitist credentialism, have gone hand in hand.
Conservatives and libertarians, in response to the ‘progressive’ harping on Inequality, attempt to explain why “equality of outcomes” is infeasible and unwise. These points are correct, but they are insufficient by themselves. It is equally important to point of what is really going on, which is not a search for equality but rather a struggle to redefine the basis of inequality in favor of certain constituencies. Think of it as a horizontal as opposed to a vertical class struggle.