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Altered Consciousness: Consider the benefits of inequality

Published: December 3, 2010
Section: Opinions


One of President Obama’s goals, or at least, one of the central by-products of his policies, is the reduction of inequality and the promotion of egalitarianism. However, this objective is, in certain respects, problematic.

The first arena where this can be seen is in the administration’s domestic policies. Obama has made the case for a set of economic proposals that, while justified based on their individual merits, would if implemented also redistribute wealth from the upper echelons of society to the middle and working-classes. Among these include repealing the Bush tax cuts, promoting and creating new health care subsidies and entitlements, empowering unions via policies like “card-check,” and increasing regulations of various industries such as those devoted to insurance and finance.

Obama’s faith in promoting equality is also manifested in his favorable attitude towards multiculturalism, or the equality of and the promotion of relativism towards disparate cultures and peoples. Indeed, Obama considers himself, as a biracial, mixed-heritage individual with an international background, as the embodiment of the melting-pot ideal that characterizes American society. Additionally, the president’s stance on multiculturalism is revealed in his promotion of immigration reform, his policy of engagement toward and dialogue with the Muslim world, and his focus on African-American issues.

Lastly, Obama’s emphasis on equality is reflected in his administration’s foreign policy. Obama does not believe that America has a particularly unique role in the world, and equates American exceptionalism with the exceptionalism of any other country. Instead, the president would like the U.S. to simply take its place as only one of nearly 200 nations, especially considering its current economic malaise. This sentiment is signified in this leader’s focus on multilateral institutions, like the United Nations and the G20, and the notion that U.S. power ought to be exerted only in agreement and in tandem with the international community.

There are cases to be made for the administration’s actions in regards to each of these three realms. However, I don’t believe that a rush to equality as a goal within itself is necessarily a good idea. Instead, Obama needs to advocate and pursue policies that reflect a more nuanced approach.

Consider, for instance, economic inequality. Yes, there are negative consequences as a society becomes more uneven and divided financially. However, the factors that allow people to accumulate capital even at the expense of others, such as individual merit, will, fortitude, creativity, independence, and determination, are all traits that ought to be admired and not too tampered with by government policies. If markets allocate resources to those who most deserve them, government should not do too much to discourage this natural course of events beyond applying clear and predictable regulations, lest it hold the American economy back.

Similarly, in regards to multiculturalism, negative implications arise when people start discriminating against each other solely on the basis of uncontrollable factors, like race, ethnicity, background, and heritage. At the same time, in order to maintain the cohesion of society, policymakers need to ensure the citizenry is integrated and that its members respect and are familiar with English and American traditions, history, norms, values and practices, even if doing so goes against a certain culture. In this sense, these leaders cannot take a solely relativistic view because doing so discourages this process from taking place.

Lastly, on foreign policy, America, despite its latest recession, is still a truly exceptional country, in contrast to what Obama thinks. It remains the dominant economic and political power, is the preserver and primary guarantor of the free world, and is the central promoter of democracy and human rights, dignity, and liberty. Also, if it chooses to act multilaterally within the framework of international institutions, it should lead in these efforts, and not just blend into the scenery. Other actors on the international stage keenly look to signs of strength and/or weakness in determining a country’s resolve. Obama needs to recognize this and construct a foreign policy not for an average state but an exceptional one that projects a firm image of power.

In sum, President Obama, in his efforts at promoting equality, needs to also take into consideration the benefits of inequality to formulate mature policies.