Americans have wasted immense amounts of time arguing about equality and inequality. Most such disputes are based on the notion that the human equality asserted in the Declaration of Independence refers to an equality of condition. It refers, instead, to the possession by each individual of “certain unalienable rights” among which are the rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”—what we would now call “human rights.” Each of us has an equal claim to these rights, which are not a claim to equality of condition. They are, however, the bedrock of democracy.
Inequality of condition is inevitable. At some point, however, inequalities of condition can become so great that they destroy democracy.
Serious inequality destroys the possibility of that “consent of the governed” that is basic to democracy. The operations of inequality are complex. Most basically, inequality undermines our sense of shared interests as Americans. With extreme inequality, the wealthy can afford to live in private worlds in which their personal lives make little use of the public resources—local and national parks, transit, public schools, swimming pools, hospital emergency rooms, libraries, welfare services—that are vital to the lives of those with lesser incomes..
That weakened sense of shared interests has an immense consequence: it liberates the power of money, both personal and corporate. That power has been increasingly evident in our national life. It has become common for wealthy individuals to use their personal wealth to buy political power, either by themselves running for office or by supporting candidates or causes that would benefit them at the expense of the general public. A glaring example is the attack on the estate tax that has been funded for nearly 20 years by several very wealthy families, including the Coors, the Gallos, and the Mars (candy-bar) families.
We do not need perfect equality, but current levels of inequality are clearly beyond the limits at which inequalities become inconsistent with democracy. The power of wealth now concentrated in the top 0.1% of American families and in a relatively few corporations is destroying American democracy.
Increasingly individuals like Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman are using personal fortunes to literally buy political office. Or like David and Charles Koch, whose immense fortune (second only to Bill Gates and Warren Buffet) funds a wide range of programs such as the extended disinformation program to discredit the science proving global warming and major support for the Tea Party movement. Corporations increasingly have the power to buy governmental action serving their interests at the expense of the public interest, such as the financial institutions that caused the crisis of 2008 then used their money power to block meaningful financial reform and the pharmaceutical and insurance companies that effectively opposed serious reform of our medical care system.
The power of money is depriving most Americans of their right to government by the consent of the governed. Inequality is denying to an increasing percentage of Americans their human rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
As in 1863, we are now testing whether “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” will endure in the United States.