Liberal economic and political thinkers have a problem. They’re stuck between a rock and hard place—between redistribution and predistribution. What they don’t want to do is move beyond that dilemma and look at the real problem: distribution.
Clearly, liberals are concerned about the unequal distribution of income.* How could they not be? The current distribution of income is obscenely unequal, and that inequality (starting in the 1970s) probably played on important role in creating the conditions for the crash of 2007-07 and the Second Great Depression.
The question is, where should they look for a solution? For some (like Paul Krugman), the answer can’t be education. Instead, we need “a strong social safety net, one that guarantees not just health care but a minimum income, too,” which would be financed out of higher taxes on wealthy individuals and corporate profits. In other words, a redistribution of income through government programs.
For others (like Jacob Hacker), “mopping up after markets” is not the solution. He proposes a predistribution formula consisting of liberal macroeconomic policies, quality public services, and countervailing (effectively, pro-labor) powers in markets.
For all their specific difference, basically, today, liberal predistribution looks an awful lot like liberal redistribution.
But something has in fact changed: both the redistribution and predistribution agendas are predicated on a theory of income inequality different from what it was only a few years ago. Then, the focus was on technology, skills, and inequality between different groups of workers. Now, the concern is between capital and labor. In other words, class.
And you can’t fix the problem of class, of the growing gap between profits and wages, through either redistribution or predistribution. You have to focus on distribution itself: on the fact that one class (capital) is in the position to appropriate the surplus produced by the other class (labor), which in turn serves to reproduce the structure according to which a tiny minority at the top is able to appropriate the surplus produced by the large majority at the bottom.
Marxists call that exploitation. And the only way to deal with the problems caused by the grotesquely unequal distribution of income is to eliminate exploitation itself.
*That’s why they have a problem conservatives don’t have. Conservative thinkers simply continue to assert that the unequal distribution of income is not a problem—because people get what they deserve and, besides, they’re better off than their counterparts were in previous times.