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Yes, But: Americans on Equality of Outcome

David Callahan

Here's a piece of conventional wisdom that many of us have heard a million times: Americans believe in promoting equality of opportunity, but are against engineering equality of outcome.

Blatant redistribution, the argument goes, may fly in Europe with its strong class identity, but is a non-starter here, where the value of individual self-reliance is dominant.  

Is this really true?

Some recent polls suggest that maybe it's not. Americans seem to have a strong appetite for policies that would transfer some wealth out of the hands of the rich. For instance, in a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 76 percent agreed and 60 percent strongly agreed that:

The current economic structure of the country is out of balance and favors a very small proportion of the rich over the rest of the country. America needs to reduce the power of major banks and corporations and demand greater accountability and transparency. The government should not provide financial aid to corporations and should not provide tax breaks to the rich.

Many Americans also support efforts to create more equity overall. Another recent poll, by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), found that 63 percent of respondents agreed that “we need to dramatically reduce inequalities between rich and poor, whites and people of color and men and women.”

In a third recent poll, by The Washington Post/ABC News, respondents were asked: "Do you think the federal government should or should not pursue policies that try to reduce the gap between wealthy and less well-off Americans? Do you feel that way strongly or somewhat?" A majority -- 60 percent -- said the government should pursue such policies.

When we think about equality of opportunity, we think of policies like education or job training or access to capital that provide Americans with the tools they needed to compete in the free market. After that, presumably, people are on their own. Meanwhile, promoting equality of outcome conjures up policies that deliberately redistribute wealth from one group to another -- like higher taxes on the rich.

Policies of the latter kind are indisputably popular. Obama's proposed Buffett rule, for instance, enjoys strong support among voters, as we have written here before (indeed, even many of the wealthy back higher taxes on themselves.) But so do other redistributive policies. Raising the minimum wage, which  forces employers to share more wealth with workers, is an extremely popular idea -- with the PRRI poll showing that 67 percent of Americans think this is a good idea. Hiking taxes on corporations is another big favorite. And Americans also favor protecting the collective bargaining rights of workers.

Of course, nothing is ever as simple as it looks when it comes to Americans and equality. Trust for government is at rock bottom right now, neutering a main instrument of redistribution. And the problem goes e than that, to one of values. The PRRI poll found that 77 percent of respondents disagreed with the statement that "The government should do more to advance society's goals even if that means limiting the freedom and choices of individuals." And what do libertarians say about redistributive policies? They these leveling efforts limit the freedom and choices of individuals. 

Maybe the best way to describe the situation is like this: Americans do favor policies that promote equality of outcome, but they also believe in economic freedom and are uneasy about activist government. While it may be easy for progressives to find public support for redistributive policies, those policies are extremely vulnerable to counter-attacks by the right that tap into America's deep vein of libertarianism. The healthcare debate is a case in point: Americans support nearly all the individual elements of the Affordable Care Act, which is a redistributive law, but -- depending which polls you read -- don't much like the law overall.

So what's the solution here? As I argued in my book The Moral Center, progressives need to learn how to fuse the values of mutual obligation and the common good with the values of economic freedom and individual empowerment, thus bypassing a deadlocked national debate in which these values are routinely pitted against each other. Americans are ready to support egalitarian policies -- if these policies are sold to them in the right way.