When writers in two reliably conservative publications raise the alarm about inequality, it's time for conservatives to wake up to the dangers of an apparent widening gulf between those at the very top and the great majority of people.
In the Wall Street Journal, William Galston says we need a new social contract to ensure productivity is linked to compensation. (I'm speaking from my recall of his piece, which is behind a paywall.) I'll put it this way: workers are being lashed to do more and more, but, obviously, many are treading water at best.
In Forbes, the insightful Joel Kotkin notes that the "biggest issue facing the American economy, and our political system, is the gradual descent of the middle class into proletarian status."
Some of the left's critique is hooey. It's not at all clear that the growth of the super-rich is a cause of inequality, rather than just a side effect. I recall reading somewhere that the best period for wealth equality in the last hundred-some years was the period between roughly 1929 and 1945, which was not exactly a fun time.
Of course no society can be entirely "equal." That word has no meaning beyond a certain point. Yet when there is a gulf between the middle class -- the yeomanry, as one of the writers above puts it -- the structure of our polity becomes strained. And perhaps to the breaking point.
To my fellow conservatives who are complacent about this, I have two words: George Soros. It is by no means clear that the ultra-rich, as a class, are friendly to conservatism.
Indeed, once "classes" become an important factor, conservatism is threatened. One of the strengths of a democratic polity is that there are no huge imbalances within it. This is Burke's point: Every group and individual has a role, rights and responsibilities, which balance to some tolerable degree.
The majority of people do not feel desperate; they feel they can achieve their goals in life, more or less, thus feel at ease about the wealthy and powerful. They feel that there is a balance of power in society, with individuals, communities and groups all having a more or less reasonable status. In America, moreover, there has long been the belief that one could rise if one wanted to.
Another way to put it is that a balanced society keeps envy at bay. Let us not dismiss the reality and power of envy, either. (Henry Hazlitt I think talks about this.) Conservatives recognize the realities of human life. One of them is envy. If the ultra-rich incite too much envy, the results are predictable and dangerous.
Another reality of homo sapiens at this stage of our evolution is that if you don't allow the people as a whole their fair place and share, and hope for the future, they will think of other ways to achieve their share. That won't be a fun time either.
Of course, stability isn't everything. A too-stable system stagnates, and creates its own problems. That's the genius of modern conservatism. The trick is finding the right balance between change and stability, inequality and equality. Right now, inequality seems to be growing.
Perhaps the problem seems worse than it is. Perhaps. But conservatives must reckon with it, if only to find and address the real problems of which "inequality" may be only a symptom.This is not to predict anything. It's just to note that riding apparent instability means the system is unstable. (Check out Antifragile.)
When and how that instability strikes cannot be reckoned. It might restabilize as part of forces we don't understand or can't foresee. Or instability may hit cataclysmically next week. Or so gradually that we may not even notice, and it will only become apparent when historians look back.
But however real or apparent, inequality is at least a symptom of unstable forces at work. Our era is being changed by forces we only dimly understand, or even see. It's urgent to look for and understand them, before these instabilities weak havoc.