Upcoming | Day | Week | Month

Jerry Z. Muller Lecture

Capitalism and Inequality: What the Right and the Left Get Wrong

Friday, November 1, 2013, 11:30am

Woodburn Hall 218

Third lecture in the series “Capitalism, Its Critics and Defenders” organized by the Tocqueville Program and co-sponsored by the Department of Political Science and the Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory, IUB

Jerry Z. Muller

Professor of History, Catholic University of America

“Capitalism and Inequality: What the Right and the Left Get Wrong”

Friday, November 1, 2013, Woodburn Hall 218
11.30 a.m. – 1 p.m.

ABSTRACT. Inequality is increasing almost everywhere in the post-industrial, capitalist world, though more quickly and to a greater degree in some countries than in others. Increasing inequality is not primarily the result of politics, nor is politics likely to reverse it, for its roots are deeper and more intractable than is commonly believed. Those roots lie in the changing relationship between the family, the capitalist market, and the changing opportunities available for mental cultivation. It has class dimensions, of course, but also ethnic dimensions, and will vary across nations, in keeping with their diverse ethnic and demographic composition. Indeed, there is good reason to believe that inequality of market rewards will continue to increase. This is a source of concern for those on the left, who are ideologically committed to egalitarianism and for whom any degree of inequality is a source of moral discontent and for whom inequality is therefore always a “problem.” But it should also be of concern to those on the right, who accept inequality in principle, for some of its consequences may be pernicious in terms of social order, or threaten a populist backlash against the institutions they value most. Yet the fact that inequality is of concern does not mean that it is soluble. The deeper understanding of a phenomenon should not be equated with a greater ability to change it. On the contrary, it may lead to a greater awareness of the difficulties of doing so. The most commonly offered solution to existing inequality, embraced with variations by both major American parties –that ever more people acquire ever more education –is largely a mirage that will not decrease inequality in the aggregate. Another alternative, favored by the left, is to reserve desirable educational and professional positions for members of classes and ethnic groups that do less well in the marketplace; but that risks impeding the market and government institutions on which economic growth depends, and which continue to produce a stream of improvements to human well being. Yet the increased inequality and insecurity brought about by recent developments of western capitalism makes the attempt to cut back on welfare state spending, favored by some on the right, particularly untimely.
BIOGRAPHICAL NOTE. Jerry Z. Muller is professor of history at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC, where he is chair of the department of history. He is the author of five books, most recently Capitalism and the Jews, published by Princeton University Press in 2010. His previous books include Adam Smith in His Time and Ours (1993), and The Mind and the Market: Capitalism in European Thought (2002). His 36-lecture series, “Thinking about Capitalism” was released in 2009 by The Teaching Company. His recent essays include “Us and Them: The Enduring Power of Ethnic Nationalism,” Foreign Affairs, March-April, 2008;  “Our Epistemological Depression,” The American, January, 2009; and “Capitalism and Inequality: What the Right and the Left Get Wrong,” Foreign Affairs, March-April, 2013.
The lecture is made possible by a grant from the College of Arts and Humanities Institute which sponsor all of the events organized during the Fall semester 2013. The series will continue during the Spring semester of 2014 with five more events co-sponsored by a grant received from the Koch Foundation and the Veritas Fund.