Income inequality has increased sharply in the United States since the early 1970s, and there are no signs of any reversal in this trend even during the recent recession.1 There is dispute about the extent of this increase, whether it is temporary (and even about whether it is real), and why it has occurred. Without being able to settle any of these disputes, it seems likely that political factors have played some kind of a role—possibly only a permissive one—and that we can choose policies that would limit the extent and nature of the inequality if we choose to. But, our capacity to make such choices is fragile and could be threatened by growing inequality itself.
It has often been thought that extreme inequality is dangerous to popular rule. Aristotle argued that should the poor or the rich monopolize power they would inevitably govern in their own (class) interest. He thought it wise, therefore, for a popular government to restrict the franchise in order to assure that authority will be exercised by the middle class—those be
John Ferejohn is the Samuel Tilden Professor of Law at New York University,
where he has been on the faculty since 2009. Prior to that he had been the
Carolyn S. G. Munro Professor of Law at Stanford University. His publications
include Pork Barrel Politics: Rivers and Harbors Legislation, 1947–1968; The
Personal Vote: Constituency Service and Electoral Independence, with Bruce
Cain and Morris Fiorina (winner of the 1988 Richard Fenno Prize for the best
book in legislative politics during 1987); Constitutional Culture and Democratic
Rule, coedited with Jack Rakove and Jonathan Riley; A Republic of Statues,
with William Eskridge; and numerous articles in journals and collections. He
was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1985 and to the
National Academy of Sciences in 1988.