Life is always the same in all periods: namely, comfortable for the rich and less comfortable for the poor, their discomfort being determined by the sense of luxury they feel they might have and cannot get; so that we may say that the most comfortable state of society is that in which there is the least difference between the poor and the rich; and such a state was to be found in the early Middle Ages rather than in the present age. — L. F Salzman, English Life in the Middle Ages (1927).
Our political “leaders” seldom actually lead on anything, but they are uniquely placed to advertise commonplaces. This can be a worthy function of politicians. So when President Obama recently proclaimed income inequality “the defining challenge of our time,” perhaps after submitting that phrase to the test of a “focus group”, he was giving expression to an anxiety widely shared among most intelligent and thoughtful citizens.
Of course it is not precisely the abstraction of income inequality that bothers us. Very few people are truly unsettled by the fact that they inequably have more than somebody else. What bothers a large and growing number of Americans is a personal feeling that they have less than they need, deserve, and (certainly) desire — joined with a want of plausible hope that they might achieve it. I probably should say “we” rather than “they”, as the feeling is widespread among “us” — that is, the protean group, undefinable but indispensable, called the “American Middle Class”.
The problem might be more easily fixed if poor people were poor because rich people are rich. It would be especially helpful if the hyper-wealth of a very few (say one percent) actually were causing the economic distress of the very many (say ninety-nine percent). Perhaps then everything could be made right by declaring that the scale would henceforth have only ninety-nine partitions?
One inconvenience of historical knowledge, such as that possessed by the medievalist Salzman, is that it demands of its possessor a more capacious comparative sensibility than that exhibited in the parable of the ninety-nine and the one. An unmarried, unemployed mother and her children living on food stamps in a trailer park in Flagstaff enjoy creature comforts and life expectancies beyond the dreams of the old Dukes of Aquitaine. The material circumstances of that same woman are vastly superior to those of scores of millions of other women in the world today.
Such historical perspective, however, is unlikely to assuage either the woman in Flagstaff or the principled anxieties of her compatriots concerning her. What actual grounds do we have for condemning “inequality”? Should the CEO of McDonald’s receive eleven million dollars in extra “incentive pay” (tips, so to speak) at the same time his company is issuing a pamphlet to their burger-flippers coaching them on possible venues for moonlighting that might push their combined earnings up above the official poverty level? There is no sound economic argument against his huge salary, but there is a plausible one in its favor. This man is apparently better than his predecessor at selling hamburgers and therefore necessarily better at maintaining or even increasing the overall payroll of his employees. If you find the situation disgusting — disgusting being the word I would use — you must do so on the basis of ethical criteria that have no standing in the American Constitution, such as Aristotelian moderation, Christian fraternity, or simple social aesthetics.
The “politicians” of the European Middle Ages were deeply worried about inequality too — worried that there might not be enough of it. They saw threats to their class system everywhere, and struggled to preserve it against the rising historical tide. One tool was the sumptuary law. Sumptuary laws aimed to defend social decorum by suppressing extravagant expenditure and preserving exclusively for the right people luxuries in food, clothing, modes of transportation, and so forth.
For example, though everybody might eat dinner, not just anybody could own a dining table. One of Chaucer’s pilgrims is described as having a table dormant permanently in place in his dining hall — one of several details meant to suggest his culpable materialism, even perhaps hedonism. Most people were supposed to eat off boards temporarily placed across trestles — a fact fossilized in our phrase “room and board”.
The idea of the sumptuary law must seem very strange to modern inhabitants of a money economy and a “Consumer Society” in which conspicuous consumption has been the privilege and perhaps the duty of great wealth for more than a century and a half. In today’s climate, however, the sumptuary law may perhaps reappear in modern mutation, at least if Douglas K. Smith has his way. In Monday’s Times Mr. Smith published an interesting essay headed “A New Way to Rein In Fat Cats”.
Its gist: there ought to be a law that no corporation doing business with the government — and with our octopus of a government that doesn’t leave many corporations out — may pay its highest paid executive more than X times the amount it pays its lowest-paid employee. X should be apparently be in the 20 to 27 range — anyway, considerably below the current rates for several companies Smith names, such as General Electric (491:1) and Lockheed Martin (315:1).