Debate: The Failed Role of
We live in a capitalistic society. The private market, with minimal constraints, determines the distribution of wealth in society. That process, plus the inheritance of opportunities and wealth from prior generations, invariably creates inequalities in the distribution of income, wealth, and opportunities in society. Many people see the inequalities as natural, unremarkable, even beneficial, rewards for achievements and penalties for not achieving. Further, it is widely argued that inequalities can be overcome through individual effort and that government programs are unnecessary.
Others regard the inequalities of American society as the product of family wealth and background, as fundamentally unfair, and perhaps even illegitimate in a society that professes to believe in equality of opportunity. These critics argue that one's background shapes opportunities and subsequent life chances and that society should adopt policies to increase equality of opportunity.
We also live in a political democracy. The political process is the mechanism for members of society to register their reactions to inequalities. It is through this process that ideas filter about what constitutes fairness and justice. It is also through this process that we debate what actions, if any, should be taken to try to respond to the inequalities that emerge from the private market.
Political debates about whether and how society should respond are crucial in a democracy. They are the means by which groups can argue about the legitimacy of the social order and make their case for whether change is needed. Less-affluent people and their sympathizers use the political process to make their case about the need for policies to create more equality of opportunity for the less-affluent population. Opponents to redistribution use the process to protect their interests. They argue for the