The End of Equality

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Depending on how one looks at it, the title of Mickey Kaus’s first book, The End of Equality, is either annoyingly deceptive or hauntingly clever. This is because of the double meaning of the word “end.” In his book, Kaus discusses the nature of equality as an end (or goal) of contemporary liberalism. He wishes to convince liberal Democrats—and, ultimately, an electoral majority of Americans—that they should pursue “social” rather than “money” equality.

Kaus believes that Democrats should accept the growing disparity of income that emerged during the Reagan-Bush years as an inevitable result of the globalized, postindustrial economy. The emphasis on skills needed to compete in the global economy and dramatic stratification of incomes even within the skilled professions (what Kaus calls the “Hollywood effect”) make the attempt to level incomes quixotic at best, and, quite possibly, economically disastrous. Moreover, income equality, according to Kaus, is not a crucial element in American democracy as popularly conceived. Indeed, the quest for extraordinary wealth has always been a part of the American Dream. Correspondingly, equality of opportunity has always been emphasized over equality of result.

Kaus does believe, however, that social equality is a crucial element in American democracy. As a result, he is troubled greatly by the social disparity and separation of economic classes that have been developing in the United States since the end of World War II. Social inequality, Kaus asserts, has resulted from a number of factors quite independent of income disparity. Suburbanization has led to the physical separation of habitats along class lines, affecting the nature of schools and public places. The inequitable system of selective service during the Vietnam War and subsequent for- mation of a volunteer army have removed the socially democratizing impetus of military service that existed, for example, during World War II. Badly designed wel- fare programs have damaged a work ethic that used to cut across class lines, lending dignity to work endeavors no matter what the size of the resulting income. These developments have produced a society in which economic inequalities are no longer ameliorated by a transcendent public sphere. What the United States most needs is restoration of such a sphere, one in which wealth simply does not count, at least not for very much.

In order to combat social inequality, Kaus recommends an aggressive and comprehensive application of what he calls “civic liberalism.” The goal of civic liberalism is to reconstruct and maintain a meaningful, shared public sphere insulated from the divisive effects of income inequality.

Kaus proposes three stages of reform. The first would be to narrow the gaps between classes immediately by restoring an equitable system of mandatory military or civilian national service, instituting campaign finance reform designed to minimize the influence of monied interests on elections, and developing a national health care policy designed to avoid segregation of patients based on their ability to pay. Mandatory national service would replicate the egalitarian aspects of universal conscription during World War II (something voluntary programs would not achieve). Public financing of political campaigns would reduce the corrupting effects of economic power on the democratic process. Universal health care that permitted less wealthy patients access to the same doctors and facilities used by those who are well off would ensure a certain minimum of human dignity and also put people with disparate incomes into contact with one another as equals.

Stage two, the most costly and complicated, would retrieve public space in inner cities and lower class barriers by legislating the urban “underclass” out of existence. This would be accomplished by substituting a relief program based on work rather than welfare. All able-bodied recipients of public aid would be given jobs at a pay rate just below the current minimum wage. According to Kaus, this would extinguish the culture of poverty, reduce crime, and return cities to a condition in which they can provide an abundance of public space for various kinds of interclass activities.

In the third and final stage, residential and educational segregation according to class would be addressed by a strategy designed to bring about an “ecology of equality.” Communities would be offered incentives to become more economically diverse. This would be less difficult than it sounds, according to Kaus, once there is no longer an economic underclass with which to deal. One result of a policy designed to bring about such an ecology of equality would be to redemocratize schools, bringing together students of disparate income to interact as civic equals.

Kaus closes with a chapter on...

(The entire section is 1990 words.)

The End of Equality

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In THE END OF EQUALITY, Mickey Kaus discusses the nature of equality as an end (or goal) of contemporary liberalism, calling on liberal Democrats to pursue “social” rather than “money” equality. He believes that the growing disparity of income which has emerged during the Reagan-Bush years is unavoidable in our globalized, postindustrial economy. It is, moreover, consistent with our basic democratic values. According to Kaus, however, the social inequality which has been developing in the United States since the end of World War II does fundamentally violate our democratic values.

In order to combat social inequality, Kaus recommends comprehensive application of “civic liberalism.” The goal of civic liberalism is to reconstruct and maintain a meaningful, shared public sphere insulated from the divisive effects of income disparity. Kaus proposes that we restore an equitable system of mandatory national service, institute campaign finance reform designed to minimize the influence of monied interests on elections, and develop a national health care policy designed to avoid segregation of patients based on their ability to pay. He also believes that we should retrieve public space in inner cities (and lower class barriers) by legislating our urban “underclass” out of existence. This would be accomplished by substituting a relief program based on work rather than welfare. Finally, Kaus recommends that residential and educational segregation be replaced with an “ecology of equality.”

Kaus closes by asking if this agenda for change can be made into an electoral winner. His answer is twofold. First, who cares? The agenda should be pursued because it is the right thing to do. Second, yes, it can be a winner, at least as much as money equality has been for Democrats. (Contrary to the book’s blurbs, Kaus’s ideas did not play a major role in the 1992 campaign.)

There is a lot to argue with in this book, from just about every perspective. And Kaus’s ideas often seem facile. Nevertheless, his extensive endnotes provide considerable support for his views. Many readers will find the book provocative. Few will find it altogether persuasive.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. August 23, 1992, XIV, p. 3.

The Christian Science Monitor. October 2, 1992, p. 10.

Commonweal. CXIX, October 23, 1992, p. 20.

Fortune. CXXVI, November 2, 1992, p. 143.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. August 2, 1992, p. 1.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, July 12, 1992, p. 1.

Time. CXL, July 27, 1992, p. 70.

The Wall Street Journal. July 17, 1992, p. A10.

The Washington Post Book World. XXII, July 12, 1992, p. 1.