Risks and Rents: Market Adjustment and Economic Democracy in Inequality Research

Luis Flores, University of Michigan

This paper examines a tension in political approaches to inequality within sociology and uses the cases of occupational licensing and American zoning to consider opportunities for reframing debates over regulatory barriers on markets in terms of economic democracy. One recent line of research foregrounds the rise in “economic insecurity,” or risk, conditioned by the lack of social and regulatory protections as the paramount expression of rising inequality. A second approach locates rising inequality in proliferating classes of rentiers who constrain supply, competition, and market adjustment. Ironically, the same institutions that protect against economic insecurity in one approach, occupational licensing, zoning, unionization, and wage regulations, are in the second perspective a source of economic rents, contributing to inequality and inefficacy. This article brings to stratification theory insights from economic sociology which emphasizes the regulation’s role in defining and enabling markets and critical political economy which considers the role of economic democracy as a source of material security. I draw on the history and contemporary debates on occupational licensing and American zoning—particularly the rise of a “Yes in My Backyard” movement—to highlight the limits of rent-theory critiques of inequality. Without a framework for distinguishing egalitarian and inegalitarian forms of market regulation, rent critiques can eschew instruments of local self-determination and economic democracy in the name of market justice. How might an incorporation of economic democracy as an element of stratification change the study of regulatory barriers that are primarily examined as sources of un-earned rents?

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 151. Powers of Class and Business