Who Wants to Be Wealthy

The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianismby Robert William FogelThe Univ. of Chicago Press. 383p $25

If Professor Fogel were giving his students a multiple-choice test on the new egalitarianism, one likely question would be: Which is the greater agent of equity in prosperous America? He would probably present five choices: a) federal government; b) transnational corporations; c) trade unions; d) the nonprofit sector; and e) the religious right. That last choice might seem extremely improbabletacked on mainly to see who had been dozing off in class. But the religious right is the correct answer. Its cultural agenda is most agreeable to the demands of equality in the new millennium, as construed by this eminent scholar.

Robert William Fogel is no Bible-monger. He writes as a secular child of liberal modernity and, more formidably, a Nobel prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago (whose celebrated work is in the economics of black slavery). He comes to his conclusions by way of historical investigations that are idiosyncratic as well as refreshingly interdisciplinary. As Fogel surmises, the age of ubiquitous material prosperity is upon us, and the undone work of egalitarianism is largely spiritual, in Western societies. The new challenge lies in spreading the wealth of immaterial assets, or virtues and values. That road intersects with the moral agenda of conservative evangelicalism, after an interesting detour through past religious rebirths or Great Awakenings.

Advertisement

Fogel is one economist with a steady vision of moral ends. This is unusual, because as a whole the profession lacks a teleological view, a sense of ultimate purposes, and that makes a muddle of means and ends. This isn’t hypothetical. It surfaces, for example, in arguments against global labor and environmental standardson grounds that such protections would violate free trade (as if that were an end in itself).

Last year the Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen struck a blow for teleology with his insightful though dense collection of writings, Development as Freedom. Sen profits from Aristotle’s understanding of wealth as merely useful and for the sake of something else, and argues that the something else is human self-realization (including full participation in society). That alters our perception of growth, income, industrialization and other measures of development.

In like vein, Fogel begins with Socrates’s question: What is the good life? He too speaks of self-realization, defined as the achievement of a moral and satisfying life. The sons of rich Athenians, freed from the need to work to satisfy material needs, found their realization in public service and the search for truth. Fogel dares to envision the same for Americans, rich and poor.

In a world in which all but a small percentage are lacking in adequate nutrition and other necessities of life, self-realization may indeed seem like mere ornament, but not in a country where even the poor are rich by past or Third World standards. That is the case in America today, he writes, pointing to palpable gains in income, leisure, health, education and life expectancy since the 19th century. Introducing the concept of technophysioevolution, the interaction of technological progress and physiological improvement in the past three centuries, Fogel burrows into such hollows of research as the growth in human body size and declining rate of irreparable hernias. Such evolution has made it possible to extend the quest for self-realization from a minute fraction of the population to almost the whole of it.

Based on these (very) long-range trends, Fogel concludes that the modern egalitarian project of the Third Great Awakening, which spawned the late 19th- century Social Gospel movement, is passé. This project inspired improvements of material condition, but its dream of moral and spiritual uplift through income redistribution was never realized. Spiritual reform is the postmodern program of the Fourth Great Awakening, a revival of enthusiastic religions that began about 1960 and has entered its political phase. The new agenda focuses on such immaterial assets as a sound work ethic, a passion for lifelong learning, a sense of community and resistance to hedonistic impulses. These inner resources are what the poor need most of all, and they must develop within each person; virtue cannot be redistributed by government.

So we return to the multiple-choice exam and Fogel’s unlikely answer. Like it or not, the reform agenda spelled out by the religious right, with its focus on restoration of the traditional family and its emphasis on equality of opportunity, more fully addresses the new issues of egalitarianism than does the agenda of the Third Great Awakening. (Equality of opportunity contrasts with equality of condition or result.)

Unlike some of similar mind, Fogel is not out to rationalize poverty. His standard of economic justice is not raw survival, but self-realization, which requires premium health care and lavish leisure, among other prerequisites. Even so, his predictions and proposals are mostly counterintuitive. He prophesies, for example, in the next few decades a 28-hour workweek and a retirement age of 55, barely noticing trends in the opposite direction on both counts. In a fleeting acknowledgment of residual poverty and inequity, he recommends a 2 percent or 3 percent tax on the top half of the income distribution, to help some households finance provident funds for education, health care and retirement. At a moment when the very rich are managing to erase the estate tax, he says with mystifying assurance, Such a tax [for human needs] has been accepted by the well-to-do in the past and should be acceptable in the future.

Fogel’s skewed appraisal of egalitarianism derives largely from his historical method. For one thing, his fascination with evangelical Great Awakenings leads him, dubiously and almost deterministically, to assign the religious right to the social vanguard. On the economic side, he relies chiefly on comparisons of material conditions today with those of the late 1800’s, the most miserable passage of industrialism in the United States. This lets him bypass countertrends over the past two decades or more, including stagnant or falling wages and growing economic disparities. The approach also ushers him away from the intuitive, social and theological standard of egalitarianism: dignified participation in communitythat is, in America today, not hypothetically in the 1800’s or in Botswana.

For all his clarity about economic ends, Fogel also stumbles into familiar false choices of right-left polemics, between moral and economic reform, individual and collective responsibility, private and public initiative, family values and government policies. Happily, growing legions of religiously inspired peoplenotably outside of the religious rightare spurning the either/or choices for a both/and approach to socioeconomic ills. They are refusing to take the multiple-choice test.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden at a conference on adult stem cell research at the Vatican, April 29, 2016 (CNS photo/Paul Haring).
Joe Biden’s deep love for his son is evident on every page of ‘Promise Me.’
Maurice Timothy ReidyDecember 15, 2017
Larger-than-life figures, social mayhem, political chaos and a foreign war.
Joseph McAuleyDecember 13, 2017
A new book shows Bishop Robert Barron's ambitious plans to evangelize culture in the United States.
David GibsonDecember 01, 2017
(iStock)
In a roundabout way, Pullman does Christians a service by writing his anti-Christian books.
Elizabeth DesimoneNovember 30, 2017