Political Ignorance

Symposium on Ganesh Sitaraman's "The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution"

The BU Law Review Online has a symposium on this important new book, with contributions by Richard Epstein, Dan Markovits, K. Sabeel Rahman , David B. Lyons, and myself.


The Boston University Law Review Online has posted a symposium on Ganesh Sitaraman's important new book, The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution. The symposium includes contributions by Richard Epstein (Chicago/NYU), Daniel Markovits (Yale), K. Sabeel Rahman (Brooklyn), David B. Lyons (BU), and myself. It also includes Sitaraman's response to his critics. Kudos to the editors for finding an ideologically diverse group of commentators.

Here is an excerpt from the start of my contribution, "Why Growing Government is a Greater Political Menace than Growing Inequality," which is now also available on SSRN (in a version with footnotes and citation information):

In his important new book, The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution, Ganesh Sitaraman argues that growing economic inequality over the last several decades and the resulting decline of the middle class is "the number one threat to American constitutional government." He also contends that the American Founding Fathers sought to establish a "middle-class constitution" in which the avoidance of extremes of wealth and poverty would ensure the stability of democratic government, and that the struggle to preserve and extend the middle-class constitution is a major theme of American constitutional history.

These are bold and provocative claims, but large elements of them fail to withstand scrutiny. Economic inequality is not as serious a threat to our political system as the growing size and complexity of government. These forces make it increasingly difficult for ordinary people to exercise effective control over government—or even to understand what it is doing. Ironically, the policies Sitaraman and others advocate as solutions to inequality would make this problem worse.

In addition, Sitaraman's focus on the Founders' fear of excessive inequality of wealth leads him to ignore their much stronger concern for protecting liberty and property rights, and limiting and decentralizing government power. These latter ideas can help us address the more dangerous elements of our present situation.

While Sitaraman overstates the dangers of inequality, he is right to highlight the perils of declining opportunity for the poor and lower-middle class, and the ways in which the modern state offers all too many opportunities for the wealthy and powerful to enrich themselves at the expense of the public interest. These are difficult challenges to overcome. But there are ways to mitigate these problems, while simultaneously reducing the size and complexity of government that have undermined democratic accountability and empowered unscrupulous elites.

In his response to the critics, Sitaraman recognizes that the combination of big, complex government and widespread voter ignorance is a serious problem, but argues that complexity is not necessarily "tied to the size of government [and] Governments can grow in size without complexity being of the type that undermines civic engagement." I agree that complexity and size are analytically distinct. However, as noted in my contribution to the symposium, the problem here is not just size, as such, but the enormous range of functions modern government has taken on. For reasons I elaborated more fully here and here, it is not possible for the state to regulate and control so much without becoming highly complex in ways that make it difficult for voters to understand and evaluate public policy - or even just keep track of what the government is doing.

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  1. They fixed that inequality thingy in the Soviet Union. By killing off the upper classes. And the upper middle classes. And the middle classes. The managers and the engineers. The generals and admirals. The people whose parents had once owned a small shop. Anyone with a fist-full of wheat.

    So now we're doing that again? It's not inequality - it's poverty, stupid. When Bill Gates adds another billion to his piggy bank, my life is harmed in no way.

    1. Unaddressed inequality is what drove the Russian Revolution, however.
      Just because the fix was dumb doesn't mean the problem doesn't exist.

      And we're not doing anything again - whatever policies we have, America is pretty far from Soviet Russia.

      When Bill Gates adds another billion to his piggy bank, my life is harmed in no way.
      Alas, this is not how people actually work.

      1. Um, sure. Unaddressed inequality drove the US Civil War, too. If you want to paint that broadly.

      2. "Unaddressed inequality is what drove the Russian Revolution, however."

        "It's not inequality - it's poverty..."

        1. You don't think it's about relative position more than absolute?

          1. No, it's about absolute. I live pretty comfortably. And I don't know, or care, if people like Bill Gates or Warren Buffet have 10,000 times more wealth than me or 10,000,000 times more wealth than me. I don't even care enough to look it up. If I was starving, I might feel differently.

            Not only do I live comfortably, but I feel like I have a fair amount of control over how much wealth I have. I believe that, if I could create the next technology that transforms the world, or if I could figure out how to invest really really well, that I could have loads of money as well, and I could do so by improving, not harming, the quality of live of others.

            That's how we improve the economy, is to ensure that people are only limited by what they are capable of producing.

            And as far as your arguments about unrest go, don't forget that unrest doesn't just happen when people are treated unequally, but when they perceive that they are being treated unfairly, whether you agree or not. We have had civil unrest in this country when black people have installed glass windows in their homes, for example.

            1. I'm also quite content with my wealth (we'll see how that changes when I get a family). I don't think our experience is in keeping with human nature generally. Envy is a thing as well as greed. In fact, I'd argue the American Revolution is the only one in recent history caused by greed.

              We can go back-and-forth about that. But I do think it's largely accepted that ain't nothing inherently destabilizing about poverty throughout history. It's the changes you gotta watch out for.

  2. I'll have to purchase the book in order to find the elusive evidence that "the American Founding Fathers sought to establish a 'middle-class constitution' in which the avoidance of extremes of wealth and poverty would ensure the stability of democratic government." To be sure, the Pinckney proposal (a property qualification of $100,000 for President, half that for judges, and smaller sums for members of Congress) didn't make it into the final draft of the Constitution; however, the Pinckney sentiment -- that those not among the wealthy should be placated (made to feel "happy at home") with civil & religious liberty -- definitely found its way into the document.

    Clearly, the framers (all men of property) were impatient (to put it mildly) with the "malpractices of the States during the Confederation" and, accordingly, both authored specific prohibitions against State action and transferred economic powers from the State to the federal government: wealth and property everywhere could thereby be protected by the wealthy, non-democratically-elected members of the Senate!

    Many have tried in vein to refute Charles Beard's analysis of 1925 ("An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution").

  3. "In vain," I think you'll find. You were probably thinking of "in the same vein as" when you wrote it.

  4. If you read Sitararam's contribution to the symposium you will find he says, in the section responding to Epstein:

    Professor Epstein also disagrees with my arguments about the American constitutional tradition. His comments suggest that he thinks that there is a singular tradition of the "founding" and that the "founders" had a singular vision of what they were trying to do. This isn't the right way to think about the history of this period (or any period). The founding generation were a diverse group of thinkers and political actors, whose views were varied, who disagreed fiercely, and who compromised frequently. This is precisely why I argue that the middle-class constitutional tradition is a tradition, rather than the only tradition and why I acknowledge that there were other important intellectual traditions at work during the Founding Era.

    .... he does not engage with the considerable amount of evidence I have assembled to show that concerns about economic inequality were widespread during the Founding Era in every region of the country, among people of different political valences, and across time; with the broader argument that the relative economic equality of the era was an assumption and precondition for our republican constitution; or with my multi-page interpretation of James Madison's views and of Federalist 10 specifically.

  5. As we lurch more Left-wing the citizenry gets pushed into a poor working class and a very rich political class.

    That's what is happening to us, we are becoming a classic Left-wing state.

    1. Yes, the problems of capitalism would be cured if only we were more capitalist!

  6. Informed as well as "politically ignorant" net tax consumers are apt to vote for whoever promises the most stuff. Human nature compels most people (including professors and manual laborers) to vote in their perceived self-interest.

    Restricting the right to vote to net tax producers might eventually shrink the size of government and tend to revive the intent of the founders.

    1. WJack, this facile narrative is manifestly untrue, with numerous counterexamples from the conservative elderly to wealthy liberals to poor conservatives.

      Humans are not very good economic machines.

      The increasing 'suggestions' on the right to restrict the franchise sound like desperation to me.

      1. Wealthy liberals are not net tax consumers; conservative elderly are only temporarily net tax consumers--they may be thinking about their progeny and the administration of their estates as well.
        And, anyway, the rule is true generally--he never said there are zero exceptions.

        Also: you are right that humans are not good economic machines; indeed, they are not machines at all. They are, however, pretty good economic organisms, providing very good signals as to their wants, needs and capacities, if they are left alone.

        1. I am speaking to WJack's general principal Human nature compels most people (including professors and manual laborers) to vote in their perceived self-interest. There are so many exception it seems more like a rule.

          I find your more specific formulation revealing - permanent net tax consumers versus everyone else. At that point, it sounds like you're making it a proxy for vice versus virtue. Which is dumb.

          In general, I find many of the issues I have with conservatives boil down to my belief that human wants are much more complicated and hard to predict than a simple desire to accumulate.

          1. Human nature compels most people (including professors and manual laborers) to vote in their perceived self-interest. There are so many exception it seems more like a rule.

            No, because what someone perceives to be *their* self-interest isn't what you or anyone else thinks it *should* be. This is the same fundamental misunderstanding liberals have been perpetuating about their tribal opponents ever since Thomas Frank came out with that facile book.

  7. Ganesh Sitaraman, Vanderbilt Law Prof, Sr Fellow at the Center for American Progress, & Pocahontas. advisor.

    It would be nice if Socialist Lawyers checked Economic statistics before opening their mouth proposing solutions to non-existent problems whose solutions would make life worse for all. In this case the "decline of the middle class."

    The middle class is shrinking. . . because they are MOVING UP! So is the lower class. So that we can evaluate it, we need to define it. In constant 2016 $'s (adjusted for inflation):
    Upper class (UC): More than $100K
    Middle class (MC): $35-100K
    Lower class (LC): Less than $35K

    From 1967-2016 in monotonic order:
    MC went from 53.2% of us to 42.1% of us, it's shrinking.
    LC went from 38.7% of us to 30.2% of us, it's shrinking, too.
    UC went from 8.1% of us to 27.7% of us, ITS GROWING!

    PEOPLE GETTING RICHER! Bug off, Sitaraman!

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