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Contemporary inequality is a challenge to economics

Summary:
From Peter Radford and The Inequality Crisis The challenge of contemporary inequality is not just to the cohesion of modern society it is also a challenge to economics, because it is economics and its values that sit squarely within the social framework that has allowed inequality to become so pervasive and debilitating. We have built a society resting on only one view of liberty and equality, that of the economic sphere, rather than on a more holistic view that allows the inclusion of other spheres. We persist in believing ourselves as free, but it is a harsh and hollow freedom built upon individuality and isolated action, rather than on solidarity and communal action. There are economists of a certain type who question whether there is any distortion produced by inequality. They

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from Peter Radford and The Inequality Crisis

Contemporary inequality is a challenge to economicsThe challenge of contemporary inequality is not just to the cohesion of modern society it is also a challenge to economics, because it is economics and its values that sit squarely within the social framework that has allowed inequality to become so pervasive and debilitating. We have built a society resting on only one view of liberty and equality, that of the economic sphere, rather than on a more holistic view that allows the inclusion of other spheres. We persist in believing ourselves as free, but it is a harsh and hollow freedom built upon individuality and isolated action, rather than on solidarity and communal action.

There are economists of a certain type who question whether there is any distortion produced by inequality. They often repeat the claim that inequality is a benign consequence, a side effect of little interest, to the march of economic progress and the accumulation of modern prosperity. It is a profound error to think this. Then again these same people are often oblivious to the existence and importance of society, so they regard themselves as bereft of such an error.

This is a denial of the history of the very ideas that they have used as the foundation of their perspective. Economics did not begin so willful in its exclusivity, but as it became more and more inwardly focused, formal, and narrow it was forced to shed any of its origins that foreclosed on the avenue it chose to follow.

So, to understand the role of economics in fostering our current inequality we need to understand the history of the idea of inequality, and how it became belittled beside the stature of other parts of the project economics has become. This history, of course, began back in the moments when the revolt against centuries of aristocratic, monarchic, and religious oppression were being thrown off. In that early part of our modern world equality was a multifaceted concept. It was relational. Rosanvallon expresses it this way:

“This relational idea of equality was articulated in connection with three other notions: similarity, independence, and citizenship. Similarity comes under the head of equality as equivalence: to be ‘alike’ is to have the same essential properties, such that remaining differences do not affect the character of the relationship. Independence is equality of autonomy; it is defined negatively as the absence of subordination and positively as equilibrium in exchange. Citizenship involves equality as participation, which is constituted by community membership and civic activity… Economic inequalities were seen as acceptable in this framework only if they did not threaten the other modes of relational equality that defined the society of equals” (emphasis in original).

This was a web of interlocking and mutually dependent relationships. It was not simply the equality of equivalence only. Economics appears to have forgotten this. How? Why?

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