Do Facts Matter in the Inequality Debate?

Written by Noah Kristula-Green on Wednesday November 9, 2011

In the Weekly Standard, Matthew Continetti warns conservatives that the data on income inequality might, just might, not be backing up conservative talking points:

What too many [conservatives] have done is accept the premise that the purpose of government is to lessen inequalities of goods. To dispute the studies on income inequality is not to deny the presupposition on which those studies rest. To argue that “income inequality is a myth” is to imply that, if income inequality were not a myth, there would be a problem. As soon as one runs to social science’s vast library of Babel, where a study can be found to prove practically anything, one is conceding valuable ground.

Continetti is not telling conservatives that they need to adapt their arguments to fit the data, he is arguing that conservatives should just ignore data and instead focus on the first principle argument, which is that conservative principle rejects concern for rising inequality as inherently irrelevant. Or as he puts it:

This debate really has nothing to do with the facts on the ground, nor is it restricted to any particular place or time.


The leveling spirit, in other words, is coeval with the inequalities of condition that are part of the human experience.

In short, don’t worry about what the CBO says, our opponents are always trying to make society more equal through tax increases so we can’t give any ground.

Now In one sense, Continetti is making a welcomed argument. His piece is trying to get conservative bloggers and think tanks to back away from the bad data they have been generating about why inequality is a ‘myth’. He must recognize that it doesn’t help the cause if its possible to show that nearly every chart or graph which you generate can be undermined by a more credible set of data or by real experts.

However, it is unfortunate that Continetti has to argue this by dismissing the entire field of social sciences. After all, if scientists can produce studies that “prove practically anything”, then its not worth trying to prove anything.

This was not the way conservatives used to approach policy. The conservative project against the Great Society was an intellectual one based on social science, with The Public Interest showing that the programs to eliminate poverty and reduce crime simply did not work. It was that same journal which lead to promoting new and more successful policies such as welfare reform.

It is true that it is easy to bend statistics to prove any point you want to make. It is also the case that it is easier to argue your case when your underlying data is true. The problem is that conservatives don’t want to consider what it really means if the data they deride as a “myth” really is true.