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

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  • Jon D. Wisman
  • James F. Smith

Abstract

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.

Suggested Citation

  • Jon D. Wisman & James F. Smith, 2009. "Legitimating Inequality: Fooling Most of the People All of the Time," Working Papers 2009-25 JEL classificatio, American University, Department of Economics.
  • Handle: RePEc:amu:wpaper:2009-25
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    Cited by:

    1. Jon Wisman, 2013. "Government Is Whose Problem?," Journal of Economic Issues, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 47(4), pages 911-938.
    2. Hatgioannides, John & Karanassou, Marika & Sala, Hector, 2017. "Should the Rich Be Taxed More? The Fiscal Inequality Coefficient," IZA Discussion Papers 10978, Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA).
    3. Jon D. Wisman & Michael Cauvel, 2016. "Why Has Labor Not Demanded Guaranteed Employment?," Working Papers 2016-02, American University, Department of Economics.
    4. Jon D. Wisman, 2015. "What Drives Inequality?," Working Papers 2015-09, American University, Department of Economics.
    5. Jon D. Wisman, 2013. "Labor Busted, Rising Inequality and the Financial Crisis of 1929: An Unlearned Lesson," Working Papers 2013-07, American University, Department of Economics.
    6. Jon D. Wisman, 2013. "Why Marx still matters," International Journal of Pluralism and Economics Education, Inderscience Enterprises Ltd, vol. 4(3), pages 229-242.
    7. Andrea Werner, 2014. "‘Margin Call’: Using Film to Explore Behavioural Aspects of the Financial Crisis," Journal of Business Ethics, Springer, vol. 122(4), pages 643-654, July.
    8. Jon D. Wisman, 2014. "Capitalism and Inequality Re-Examined," Working Papers 2014-12, American University, Department of Economics.
    9. Jon Wisman, 2013. "The Growth Trap, Ecological Devastation, and the Promise of Guaranteed Employment," Challenge, Taylor & Francis Journals, vol. 56(2), pages 53-78.
    10. Jon D. Wisman & Barton Baker, 2010. "Rising Inequality and the Financial Crises of 1929 and 2008," Working Papers 2010-10 JEL classificatio, American University, Department of Economics.
    11. Jon D. Wisman, 2017. "Politics, Not Economics, Ultimately Drives Inequality," Working Papers 2017-06, American University, Department of Economics.

    More about this item

    Keywords

    Ideology; class power; utility of poverty; trickle down; vertical social mobility;

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