Capitalism must be denounced afresh for each generation, and this generation’s fashionable anticapitalist is Thomas Piketty of France’s School for the Advanced Study of Social Sciences and author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, about which a great deal has been written by much more knowledgeable writers than I. Like most anticapitalists, Professor Piketty is taken with the question of inequality rather than with the separate question of poverty, and his focus is most intensely upon those high-earning managers of capital. But as Clive Crook notes in his review of the book, the question of whether income inequality widens in the future “won’t matter as much as whether and how quickly wages and living standards rise.” Which is to say, if the real standard of living for the poor and the middle classes continues to increase — as it has for virtually the entire history of modern capitalism — then it will not matter if the standards of living for the very wealthy increase even more quickly. On the other hand, if living standards decline or stagnate, it will not matter very much to anybody besides political entrepreneurs whether inequality also decreases. Higher standards of living across the board are perfectly compatible with higher levels of income inequality, a pattern that has been seen not only among such alleged practitioners of cowboy capitalism as the United States but also in European welfare states such as Sweden, where income inequality is increasing just as it is in the United States.
Not that enhancing growth is much on Mr. Piketty’s mind, either as an economic matter or as a means to greater distributive justice. He assumes that the economy is static and zero-sum; if the income of one population group increases, another one must necessarily have been impoverished. He views equality of outcome as the ultimate end and solely for its own sake. Alternative objectives—such as maximizing the overall wealth of society or increasing economic liberty or seeking the greatest possible equality of opportunity or even, as in the philosophy of John Rawls, ensuring that the welfare of the least well-off is maximized—are scarcely mentioned.