The answer to the question “Is America a plutocracy?” might seem either trivial or obvious depending on how one defines the term. Plutocracy, says the dictionary, simply means “rule by the rich.” If the query is taken literally to mean that the non-rich—the vast majority of American citizens—have no influence in American democracy, or that the country is self-consciously ruled by some hidden collusive elite, the answer is obviously “no.” On the other hand, if the question is taken to mean, “Do the wealthy have disproportionate political influence in the United States?” then the answer is obviously “yes”, and that answer would qualify as one of the most unsurprising imaginable. Wealthy people have had disproportionate influence in most polities at most times in history.
Of course, one can argue endlessly over who qualifies as being rich, whether the rich constitute a social class capable of collective action, how open or closed that class is, what constitutes real political power in today’s America, and so on. But if the question remains as simple as those articulated above, the basic answer will not change or be of much interest.
This is not, however, what this issue of The American Interest means by plutocracy. We mean not just rule by the rich, but rule by and for the rich. We mean, in other words, a state of affairs in which the rich influence government in such a way as to protect and expand their own wealth and influence, often at the expense of others. As the introductory essay to this issue shows, this influence may be exercised in four basic ways: lobbying to shift regulatory costs and other burdens away from corporations and onto the public at large; lobbying to affect the tax code so that the wealthy pay less; lobbying to allow the fullest possible use of corporate money in political campaigns; and, above all, lobbying to enable lobbying to go on with the fewest restrictions. Of these, the second has perhaps the deepest historical legacy.
Scandalous as it may sound to the ears of Republicans schooled in Reaganomics, one critical measure of the health of a modern democracy is its ability to legitimately extract taxes from its own elites. The most dysfunctional societies in the developing world are those whose elites succeed either in legally exempting themselves from taxation, or in taking advantage of lax enforcement to evade them, thereby shifting the burden of public expenditure onto the rest of society.
We therefore raise a different and more interesting set of questions regarding the relationship between money and power in contemporary America. All these questions come together, however, in a paramount puzzle: Why has a significant increase in income inequality...