BY THE end of the 19th century, the first age of globalisation and a spate of new inventions had transformed the world economy. But the "Gilded Age" was also a famously unequal one, with America's robber barons and Europe's "Downton Abbey" classes amassing huge wealth: the concept of "conspicuous consumption" dates back to 1899. The rising gap between rich and poor (and the fear of socialist revolution) spawned a wave of reforms, from Theodore Roosevelt's trust-busting to Lloyd George's People's Budget. Governments promoted competition, introduced progressive taxation and wove the first threads of a social safety net. The aim of this new "Progressive era", as it was known in America, was to make society fairer without reducing its entrepreneurial vim.
Modern politics needs to undergo a similar reinvention—to come up with ways of mitigating inequality without hurting economic growth. That dilemma is already at the centre of political debate, but it mostly produces heat, not light. Thus, on America's campaign trail, the left attacks Mitt Romney as a robber baron and the right derides Barack Obama as a class warrior. In some European countries politicians have simply given in to the mob: witness François Hollande's proposed 75% income-tax rate. In much of the emerging world leaders would rather sweep the issue of inequality under the carpet: witness China's nervous embarrassment about the excesses of Ferrari-driving princelings, or India's refusal to tackle corruption.
At the core, there is a failure of ideas. The right is still not convinced that inequality matters. The left's default position is to raise income-tax rates for the wealthy and to increase spending still further—unwise when sluggish economies need to attract entrepreneurs and when governments, already far bigger than Roosevelt or Lloyd George could have imagined, are overburdened with promises of future largesse. A far more dramatic rethink is needed: call it True Progressivism.
To have or to have not
Does inequality really need to be tackled? The twin forces of globalisation and technical innovation have actually narrowed inequality globally, as poorer countries catch up with richer ones. But within many countries income gaps have widened. More than two-thirds of the world's people live in countries where income disparities have risen since 1980, often to a startling degree. In America the share of national income going to the top 0.01% (some 16,000 families) has risen from just over 1% in 1980 to almost 5% now—an even bigger slice than the top 0.01% got in the Gilded Age.
It is also true that some measure of inequality is good for an economy. It sharpens incentives to work hard and take risks; it rewards the talented innovators who drive economic progress. Free-traders have always accepted that the more global a market, the greater the rewards will be for the winners. But as our special report this week argues, inequality has reached a stage where it can be inefficient and bad for growth.
That is most obvious in the emerging world. In China credit is siphoned to state-owned enterprises and well-connected insiders; the elite also gain from a string of monopolies. In Russia the oligarchs' wealth has even less to do with entrepreneurialism. In India, too often, the same is true.
In the rich world the cronyism is better-hidden. One reason why Wall Street accounts for a disproportionate share of the wealthy is the implicit subsidy given to too-big-to-fail banks. From doctors to lawyers, many high-paying professions are full of unnecessary restrictive practices. And then there is the most unfair transfer of all—misdirected welfare spending. Social spending is often less about helping the poor than giving goodies to the relatively wealthy. In America the housing subsidy to the richest fifth (through mortgage-interest relief) is four times the amount spent on public housing for the poorest fifth.
Even the sort of inequality produced by meritocracy can hurt growth. If income gaps get wide enough, they can lead to less equality of opportunity, especially in education. Social mobility in America, contrary to conventional wisdom, is lower than in most European countries. The gap in test scores between rich and poor American children is roughly 30-40% wider than it was 25 years ago. And by some measures class mobility is even stickier in China than in America.
Some of those at the top of the pile will remain sceptical that inequality is a problem in itself. But even they have an interest in mitigating it, for if it continues to rise, momentum for change will build and may lead to a political outcome that serves nobody's interests. Communism may be past reviving, but there are plenty of other bad ideas out there.