I just started reading Leslie McCall's The Undeserving Rich: American Beliefs about Inequality, Opportunity, and Redistribution. As McCall points out, much of the discussion around inequality centers on in/equality of opportunities and conditions. If we want to see greater equality across the society, so the argument goes, then we need to ensure a level playing field from birth. With that achieved, we would have a better, more efficient means of allocating resources, rewarding those who genuinely deserve it with higher pay and less do those who don't.
This, in a nutshell, is the case for the "deserving" rich. It sounds good and fair, all right, but McCall turns this concept on its head in the introduction, drawing from work by Daniel Bell and Michael Young:
This approach has an unintended consequence, however. It tends to focus attention only on the starting gate because it assumes that any resulting distribution of outcomes is fair if the starting gate is equal. Inequities in the allocation of pay, another avenue through which opportunity can be derailed, are brushed over or not even contemplated as a problematic aspect of inequality. But both Bell in his "unjust meritocracy" and the ironic originator of the term "meritocracy," Michael Young, recognized that the distribution of rewards can itself lead to the corruption of a meritocracy even if everyone is sorted correctly according to their talents. In his 1958 classic dystopian novel, The Rise of Meritocracy, Young tells the story of greedy technocratic elites hoarding resources and crushing the souls of the meritless masses. Ultimately this behavior is dysfunctional for the economy as well as for society.
The "undeserving rich" is a conceptual intervention that follows from Young and Bell and identifies the actors that are involved in the making of an unjust, and inefficient, meritocracy. It is meant to include unfair inequalities not only in preparation and access but in pay. Pay disparities are unfair when earnings exceed the contribution and performance of those in the driver's seat of the economy, those who are seen as economic leaders and are expected to deliver economic prosperity for all. Conversely, pay disparities are also unfair when earnings fall short of the contribution and need of hardworking Americans farther down the ladder. The "deserving rich," by contrast, corresponds to a scenario in which the rich are extolled for their ingenuity and contribution to equitable growth. Under these conditions, the amount of inequality in pay between those at the top and bottom is not the primary consideration; the tolerable level of inequality is any level that is compatible with widespread opportunities for a good job with fair pay for most workers. Thus another common explanation of beliefs about inequality--that they reflect abstract considerations of fairness pertaining to the absolute level of inequality--matters less than practical considerations about the availability of opportunities, in the broadest sense of the term, and the role of the rich in securing or subverting those opportunities.
The argument would seem to go well with Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which shows that capital, over time, however it is obtained, tends toward unfair advantages, as capital has a way of growing out of proportion to original investments in time and money. It's why you see sons and daughters of rich folk living high (literally, sometimes) off the wealth of mom and dad, without doing much, if anything, to deserve it. That's certainly a problem, but that's not where the discussion should end, as McCall claims, and I agree.
Read the rest of McCall's introduction here.