INEQUALITY AND DEMOCRACY
Instructor: Luke Mayville
“Whenever one speaks of the distribution of wealth, politics is never very far behind…”
-Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century
The gap between the rich and the non-rich has reached historic levels in many advanced democracies. Does economic inequality have political consequences? Does it pose an urgent problem for democratic government? If so, what is the nature of the problem? What is the solution?
This course grapples with these questions by turning to the history of ideas. Long before our current age of inequality, major figures in the history of western political thought from Aristotle to Alexis de Tocqueville thought deeply and incisively about the political impact of social and economic disparities. Students in this course will survey analyses of inequality in the works of Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Rousseau, and others. The purpose of revisiting historical texts is not to find easy answers to the above-listed questions. Rather, the goal is to engage critically with classic works in an effort to integrate past insights with contemporary research and analysis.
We begin the course with a focus on contemporary accounts of economic inequality and its relation to politics. We then turn to a focus on classic texts in the western tradition of political thought. Reading these texts closely alongside relevant contemporary writings, we will pose such questions as:
· How might democracy (popular rule) transform into oligarchy (rule by the rich)?
· How might class conflict threaten the health and stability of political communities?
· Does republican government require a relatively egalitarian distribution of wealth?
· How might inequality corrupt morals?
· Do voting and representation provide solutions to the political problems associated with inequality?
· Is America exceptional with regard to the problem of inequality? In other words, is the United States uniquely equipped—culturally and institutionally—to retain its democratic character in spite of vast economic inequality?
When you have studied this course you should be able to:
· Identify and discuss competing concepts of inequality, oligarchy, and class conflict
· Identify and discuss competing diagnoses of the political problem posed by inequality
· Critically discuss contemporary analyses of inequality in light of historical theories
· Scrutinize historical theories of inequality and politics in light of contemporary research and analysis
· Trace and discuss the evolution of concepts including oligarchy, democracy, and mixed government
· Distinguish between various proposed solutions to the problem of inequality
Texts for this course will be made available online.
-25% – Attendance and Class Participation, including weekly quizzes
-25% – Two short papers
-20% – Final Exam (cumulative), held at the university’s officially scheduled time
-30% – Term Paper (3000-3500 words). Grad students and undergrads taking the course for honors credit must write a term paper of 4500-5000 words
Quizzes: Quizzes will be held for the first five minutes of every class. Failure to attend class or late arrival will result in a zero for that day’s quiz.
Readings and Discussion: You are required to print and bring to class the readings marked in bold below in the class schedule.
Laptops: The use of laptops during class is not permitted.
Late Policy: Lateness on paper assignments is penalized at 1/3 grade per day late.
Class and Reading Schedule:
1/21: The Inequality Phenomenon
Timothy Noah, The Great Divergence, pp. 1-27
Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, pp. 1-27, 263-265, 294-303, 571-73
1/28 Inequality as a Political Problem
Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens”
Charles Murray, Coming Apart, pp. 69-103
Darrell West, Billionaires, pp. 1-32
Theda Skocpol, “Voice and Inequality: The Transformation of American Civic Democracy”
Michael Lewis, “Extreme Wealth is Bad for Everyone—Especially the Wealthy”
2/4 Oligarchy in Classical Political Science
Plato, Republic, book VIII
Aristotle, Politics, book III, chapters 6-12
Jeffrey A. Winters, “Oligarchy and Democracy,”
Samuel Goldman, “Stop Calling the US an Oligarchy”
Reading Questions: How do oligarchies emerge? What is morally objectionable about oligarchy? How do the conceptions of oligarchy we find in Plato Aristotle relate to dynamics of wealth and power in our time?
2/11 Class Conflict and “Mixed” Constitutions
Aristotle, Politics, book IV; book V: chs. 1-9; book VI: chs. 1-7
Polybius, Histories, book VI
Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson, “Winner-Take-All Politics: Public Policy, Political Organization, and the Precipitous Rise of Top Incomes in the United States”
Reading Questions: What is the source of class conflict? How is class conflict thought to threaten the health of political communities? What is the solution to the problem of class conflict? Compare and contrast the views of Aristotle and Polybius.
2/18 Wealth Distribution and Republican Citizenship
Plutarch, “Life of Lycurgus”
James Harrington, Oceana (selections)
Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (selections)
Reading Questions: Does republican government require an egalitarian distribution of wealth? Does citizenship have a necessary basis in wealth/property?
2/25 Machiavelli’s Class Politics
Niccolò Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, bk. I: chs. 1-8; bk. III: ch. 3
Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, ch. 9
John McCormick, “Contain the Wealthy and Patrol the Magistrates”
Reading Questions: Does Machiavelli view class conflict as a problem for republics? Why is it, according to Machiavelli, that the rich pose a threat to republics and principalities? How does Machiavelli propose to mitigate this threat? Is his advice useful today?
3/4 Equality, Inequality, and the Social Contract
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Social Contract, bks. 1-2
Reading Questions: What is Rousseau’s assessment of the problem posed by inequality? Is the social contract designed to solve this problem? If so, how? Do we see the dynamics of Rousseau’s social contract at work in our politics today?
3/11 SPRING BREAK, NO CLASS
3/18 Inequality & Moral Psychology I
Rousseau, Discourse on the Origins of Inequality (entire)
Reading Questions: How are human beings changed by the emergence of social and economic inequality?
3/25 Inequality and Moral Psychology II
Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments (selections)
John Adams, Discourses on Davila (selections)
Reading Questions: How do the rich and the poor relate to one another emotionally? Does inequality corrupt our moral sentiments?
4/1 Inequality and Representative Government I
Notes on the Debates in the Federal Convention (selections)
Federalist Papers (selections)
Lawrence Lessig, Republic, Lost (excerpt)
Reading Questions: Do the institutions of voting and representation solve the political problem of inequality? If so, how? If not, could this shortcoming be fixed through institutional reform?
4/8 Inequality and Representative Government II
Anti-Federalist Papers (selections)
Federalist Papers (selections)
Bernard Manin, The Principles of Representative Government, pp. 102-31
Nicholas Carnes, “Which Millionare Are You Voting For?”
Reading Questions: Can the political problem of inequality can be addressed through class representation? In other words, can the political problem of inequality be mitigated by elevating a substantial number of non-rich citizens to legislative office?
4/15 The Liberal State, Civil Society, and the Power of Wealth
Karl Marx, “On the Jewish Question”
Michael Walzer, “Liberalism and the Art of Separation”
Reading Questions: What is Marx’s critique of the liberal state? Does the liberal strategy of separating state and society ultimately empower wealth?
4/22 American Democracy—Exceptionalism?
Tocqueville, Democracy in America (selections)
Louis Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America (excerpt)
Reading Questions: Is America exceptional with regard to the problem of inequality? Is the United States uniquely equipped—culturally and institutionally—to retain its democratic character in spite of a vast inequality of resources?