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  • Print publication year: 2009
  • Online publication date: October 2009

3 - Political Conflict over “Who Gets What?”


When we examine a cross-section of income data, as in the previous chapter, it is obvious that government programs have a tangible impact on who has how much money in America. Government action matters, but I am most interested in the political conflict that produces this government action. Government's impact on inequality, occurring through a variety of policy mechanisms, does not just happen, appearing out of nothing. It is likely a systematic product of politics. If we think of politics as the conflict over which values government will authoritatively enforce or the battle over who gets what, it is obvious that who wins and who loses in political conflict should alter the distributional outcomes that are in part determined by government policy. In this chapter, I examine the nature of political conflict over distributional outcomes in the United States. How might politics, as opposed to programs, influence income inequality?

Since at least the time of FDR and the Great Depression, modern American liberals have placed an intrinsic value on economic equality and have generally favored government action to balance the scales between the rich and the poor. Conservatives, on the other hand, do not find economic inequality to be an inherent societal problem and are less favorable toward government action that balances the scales of inequality.