Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Notes on ageism, Pt. I: You can't have capitalism without ageism

Even the most radical capitalists typically* accept equality of opportunity as a prerequisite of social justice. It's the form of egalitarianism that reactionaries are generally okay with, because it's mostly hypothetical - to be distinguished from "equality of outcomes", EG substantive equality. Thus no less a seminal capitalist than Milton Friedman insists that
Equality of opportunity, like personal equality, is not inconsistent with liberty; on the contrary, it is an essential component of liberty... Not birth, nationality, color, religion, sex, nor any other irrelevant characteristic should determine the opportunities that are open to a person - only his abilities. (Free to Choose, 132)
Necessarily, it seems, capitalism distributes these opportunities over time. No one somehow gets all of the job offers and contract proposals that they will ever receive all at once - instead, our opportunities are spread out over the course of years and decades. Of course, this means that the benefits of these opportunities will also be spread out over the course of one's life, which is a major reason why young people are generally poorer than old people.

So while one can argue that this economic arrangement is optimal, or inevitable, or necessary, one cannot argue that it treats all age groups equally. It distributes opportunities in such a way that older people will have had more of them than younger people, which guarantees that the latter will always have less power and privilege. Tying income to the emergence of labor opportunities in a market economy obviously engineers a society where wealth will tend to accumulate with age. The trend here is well-documented and one that everyone intuitively understands:


This wealth distribution has all kinds of obvious and completely predictable consequences. For instance, here are the people who fund our politics:


And here are the people who get elected to office:


It's easy enough to blame the disproportionately meager representation of the young on participation issues (voting turnout and such), but there are a few obvious problems with this. First, we usually insist that everyone has the responsibility to ensure a representative Congress - this is not just the burden of groups seeking their own representation, but a shared burden placed by our basic commitment to a pluralistic democracy. Second, the liberal-left in particular has always acknowledged and resisted the effects of economic inequality on democratic representation. The older age groups who, because of their wealth, are also the most powerful political donors obviously have dramatic advantages in securing representation, but this is not something that we should celebrate or passively tolerate.

Certainly age-based income inequality has all kinds of additional and profound material consequences that prove catastrophic for younger Americans, but I draw special attention to the political consequences because they make particularly vivid problems with the most common justifications for ageism, which I'll run through in the next part of this series. For now, suffice to say that ageism is real, it is a direct consequence of the way that capitalism ties income to the labor market, and it has a dramatic and distorting effect on democratic representation in the US.



* Granted, this is beginning to change at the bleeding edge of bourgeois apologetics. As the relationship between soaring wealth inequality and vanishing opportunities becomes increasingly obvious, capitalists are blazing new rhetorical trails. Thus we have insane Objectivists like Yaron Brook openly insisting that inequality of opportunity would "violate everybody's rights", though the more common move is to take issue, like Don Watkins, with those "who go around advocating equality of opportunity" but who are actually "destroying opportunities". The ideal of equal opportunity will probably demand lip service from capitalists for the foreseeable future - even as they continue their efforts to destroy it.