Counterpoint: The Commodification of Political Influence

In ‘Winner Take All Politics’, political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson chart the rise of income inequality in America. The book, as Ian Downie pointed out in the previous post, reads like a crime novel. The two marshal massive amounts of evidence supporting the fact that today’s vast income inequality is the result of distinct historical processes often actively abetted by the US government. Although Hacker and Pierson are indignant toward the current state of affairs, they by no means adopt a teleological approach – they never once say that the government’s objective was to expand income inequality. This is where Mr. Downie misses the bigger picture.

Mr. Downie takes issue with Hacker and Pierson’s method. He holds that the authors went about their task in a backwards manner; they identified an injustice and then sought to explain it through examining the process that led to its establishment. I do agree that the authors could have done a better job explaining why inequality necessitates such an intense investigation. They seem to assume that their readers share their indignation. In fact, income inequality is destructive. History shows that democratic health and economic success are tied to vibrant middle classes. Hacker and Pierson’s neglect to explain income inequality’s pernicious implications surely constitutes a major deficiency in the book. Even so, there is nothing particularly problematic about their approach. They identify a problem, explain its conditions, and document the process that led to this outcome.

Hacker and Pierson do not make broader ethical claims. Obviously of a more liberal persuasion, they hold that income inequality is essentially bad (without explaining why) and that our political system, which has been complicit in expanding this inequality, is broken. But their book is more historical documentation than accusatory invective. While they do place “blame,” they never contend that anybody conspired to expand inequality. And while their language implies that injustice has occurred, they by no means let this warp the collection and interpretation of their evidence. In fact, they found that political conditions under Democrat Jimmy Carter really kick started America’s trend toward inequality.

By fixating on philosophical distinctions between justice and fairness, Mr. Downie misses the most important point of the book. For Hacker and Pierson, income inequality is the consequence of a much more harmful process: the commodification of political influence.  They are not making some grand comment on the ethicality of various actors’ decisions over the past decades. They are not saying that all of the wealthy are guilty of ruining American society. They do, however, paint a picture of a federal government beholden to narrow, wealthy interests. Hacker and Pierson locate the origin of this phenomenon in the political upheaval of the 1970’s, when businesses began to organize and pressure Congress. This period saw a massive augmentation in the role of special interest groups and incited a process through which money came to dominate politics. Explosions in campaign contributions and lobbying have produced a system where material wealth translates to political gain. Income inequality is thus a reflection of this process, which has excluded the majority of Americans from the benefits of overall gains in income. I will here refrain from trite explanations of money’s corruptive influence on politics, but the commodification of political influence constitutes the “unjust process” that Mr. Downie can’t seem to find.

This book is an important read for students of public policy. While it might offend the political sensibilities of some, its broader message is relevant and timely: policy matters. Whether or not one believes that America’s trend toward income inequality is something to be concerned about, Hacker and Pierson show how government policy – by shaping institutions both within the market and without – has a real impact on social welfare. It is my opinion that America’s growing income inequality is cause for alarm. My take away from the book, however, is how grossly unrepresentative our democracy really is.

Post by Shivesh Puri (Acc. ’13)

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