Jerry Muller is one of my favorite economic historians. I think this piece offers an insightful analysis of inequality in advanced market economies. As I read this piece I kept thinking back to Robert Fogel's (another favorite economic historian) The Fourth Great Awkening and the Future of Egalitarianism, where he makes the case that the economic challenge of this century is going to be focused on human capital. I don't think the ideologies of the left or right have come to grips with this yet. Muller begins:
Inequality is increasing almost everywhere in the post-industrial capitalist world. Despite what many think, this is not the result of politics, nor is politics likely to reverse it. The problem is more deeply rooted and intractable than generally recognized.
Inequality is an inevitable product of capitalist activity, and expanding equality of opportunity only increases it -- because some individuals, families, and communities are simply better able than others to exploit the opportunities for development and advancement that today's capitalism affords. Some of the very successes of western capitalist societies in expanding access and opportunity, combined with recent changes in technology and economics, have contributed to increasing inequality. And at the nexus of economics and society is the family, the changing shape and role of which is an often overlooked factor in the rise of inequality.
Though capitalism has opened up ever more opportunities for the development of human potential, not everyone has been able to take full advantage of those opportunities or to progress very far once they have done so.
Formal or informal barriers to equality of opportunity, for example, have historically blocked various sectors of the population -- such as women, minorities, and poor people -- from benefiting fully from all capitalism offers. But over time, in the advanced capitalist world, those barriers have gradually been lowered or removed, so that now opportunity is more equally available than ever before. The inequality that exists today arguably derives less from the unequal availability of opportunity than it does from the unequal ability to exploit opportunity.
And that unequal ability, in turn, stems from differences in the inherent human potential that individuals begin with and in the ways that families and communities enable and encourage that human potential to flourish. ...
The bolded sentence is my doing. Read the whole thing. Thoughtful stuff.