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Legitimating Inequality: Fooling Most of the People All of the Time

  • JON D. WISMAN
  • JAMES F. SMITH

Over the three decades leading up to the crisis of 2008, inequality dramatically increased in the United States and Great Britain. What stands out, but is seldom noted, is that this occurred within democracies where the relative losers -- the overwhelming majority -- could in principle have used the political system to block or reverse rising inequality. Why did they not do so? A glance at history reveals that peoples have only very infrequently contested inequality because they were led to believe that their inferior status in terms of income, wealth, and privilege was just, that it was not really so bad, or that it was necessary for their future wellbeing. Ideological systems legitimated a status quo of inequality, or in more modern times even increasing inequality. This article surveys the manner in which inequality has been historically legitimated, first predominantly by religion, then predominately by economic thought. Attention is then focused on the manner in which contemporary economic science and its popular interpretations in the media have served to legitimate inequality in the U.S. since the mid-1970s. The paper concludes with a reflection on the unique conditions that enable the legitimation of inequality to be delegitimated.

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File URL: http://hdl.handle.net/10.1111/j.1536-7150.2011.00795.x
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Article provided by Wiley Blackwell in its journal American Journal of Economics and Sociology.

Volume (Year): 70 (2011)
Issue (Month): 4 (October)
Pages: 974-1013

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Handle: RePEc:bla:ajecsc:v:70:y:2011:i:4:p:974-1013
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