Document Type

Chapter of Book

Publication Date



The renewed debate over inequality has highlighted a set of deficits in much of the last fifty-plus years of thinking on the topic. The late twentieth-century tradition of thinking about distributive justice largely assumed (1) that market dynamics would produce stable and tolerable levels of inequality; and (2) that a relatively powerful, competent, and legitimate state could effectively redistribute to mitigate what inequality did arise. What was largely overlooked in this thought and has since risen to central attention is the prospect that (1) accelerating levels of market-produced inequality will (2) undermine the legitimacy and efficacy of the state and disable the political community from effectively pursuing distributive justice. This paper explains how the earlier assumptions arose, defined the boundaries of distributive justice for decades, and were undermined by developments from both the political left and the political right. At present, the dynamics of inequality appear to be self-perpetuating and self-accelerating, and much of earlier thinking on the topic has been rendered irrelevant by the erosion of its mistaken premises. Only a democratic effort to reconstitute a competent and legitimate state has any prospect of making inequality a tractable problem subject to effective intervention.

Library of Congress Subject Headings

Distributive justice, Income distribution, Democracy--Economic aspects, Wealth