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July 23, 2013

Some Thoughts on Equality and Avarice

A large welfare state with a heavy hand in the economy is often expounded by the American Left, Christian or otherwise, as the necessary fruits of compassion for the poor. For example, Jim Wallis argues that a high minimum wage is the necessary conclusion from the prophetic witness in the Old Testament (He goes so far to say that a Christian’s theological foundation is that “God hates inequality.” Whether this extends to all natural difference or merely economic is unsurprisingly not elucidated). In the eyes of Wallis and his ilk, secular or religious, if someone is not pushing for a large Federal government brimming with social programs they are accused of not caring for the poor. However, I am skeptical of those advocating for the aforementioned to tackle poverty. Let me offer a thought experiment to illustrate my point.

Let us divide humanity at large into the favorite categories of the Left: the 99 percent and 1 percent. For the sake of the argument, let’s say that the 99 percent struggle to meet basic needs, such as food and shelter, while the 1 percent easily obtain those and other luxuries. Now, let’s say that the 99 percent now makes as much as the 1 percent, but the cost of this is that the 1 percent makes even more than they previously did. So both the 99 percent and the 1 percent have all their necessities met, but the 1 percent still is able to afford the things the 99 percent are not able to.

I say the person satisfied with the above scenario can be said to have genuine compassion for the poor.  He does not care what the rich man does with wealth so long as the needs of the poor have been met. He leaves the specks alone and is content that the log is removed.

However, if a person objects to the above scenario, I don’t see how he is motivated by compassion for the poor. Instead, he seems to be motivated by equality. The reason for the expansive state is not so much to help the poor as it is to make everyone equal. Helping the poor becomes a means to the end of equality, the good in mind for the proponent of the Left.

I also don’t see why equality in and of itself would be a good. After all we could just as easily be equal in poverty, a “sour grapes” solution if you will, as riches. One could even go to the other Hobbesian extreme and make sure everyone has nothing at all, insuring equality that way. Equality in and of itself is merely contingent. In other words, equality is a good for the sake of something else.

Let’s return to the person who objects to anyone having more than anyone else. Forgive my cynicism, but I can think of no other reason than avarice motivating him. If such a person would object to everyone’s mouth being fed and having a roof over their head even if that meant there would be people who always had more than other people, how could he not? The person who possesses more is not a criminal for keeping for him the coat which could clothe the naked, as St. Basil thoroughly condemns, but merely because he has more. The rich man becomes a criminal solely for having something the other person wishes he had, as opposed to neglecting others. For if the rich man was able to clothe everyone, yet still had more coats than all those clothed, he would still be a criminal.

As we examine arguments supposedly grounded in compassion, let’s  make sure that we are not sinning so that grace may abound. As Christians, we are commanded to fight poverty not out of envy of another man’s riches, but from the love of our fellow man.


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  • Glenn

    I have a hard time submitting myself to your thought experiment. For one, these things are not experiments of thought alone. Daily people die (everywhere) because of a basic lack of the necessities: those in my mind being food, shelter, and basic health care (in whatever way that is envisioned). I also have a hard time submitting myself to this thought experiment because the argument only allows in itself the possibility of diametrically opposed outcomes: the “socialist” state (if you will cede the point that in this experiment the implied basis is that Jim Wallis and his ilk deploy a socialist or ar least social democratic model) and the capitalist/corporatist one. Both, in my mind fail to take some important issues into consideration. Now, I cede the point that if you simply raise the minimum wage and fail to fundamentally change the dominant ways, you have simply made things more expensive (you didn’t really make this statement explicitly but it seem to be hanging in there somewhere).
    To my point:
    I do not understand equating equality with some “sinful” stance. In fact, it is hard for me to take this whole argument seriously because what other basis is there for capitalism (again, I didn’t see you defend capitalism outright but what else are you talking about in this reflection than the differences between the same coin different side argument of socialism/communism vs capitalism?) than avarice? It is the contempt of capitalist (the 1% of the highly simplistic occupy… btw I have nothing in common with those who would be considered part of the 99% yet make $60,000 or more a year…what a useless concept…but I digress) it is the contempt of the capitalist towards his/her workers that allows them to pay people much less than what their labor is worth. It is the contempt of the owner of a multi-national towards those in the global south (whom work because they (we) have to) that allows them to profit off of the backs of his/her worker.
    So. Is it sinful to hold those who profit in this way to be accountable for their actions? Or, is it something else? This is just one way to analyze this. But, embedded in this is also issues of race and gender and sexuality, all of which (based on the fact that the IRD has in some way supported this little reflection) I doubt you care about nor consider legitimate.
    Please help me understand what, in the end this reflection was about and how it has furthered the discussion in any way.

  • David J. Dunn

    I read your first two paragraphs as stating that differences between left and right boil down more to tactics than motives. That is, market liberals care for the poor too, which is correct and helpful. But then you use a straw argument (your thought experiment) to shift attention back to motives again, suggesting that those against market liberalism are actually just jealous of rich people. Thus what could have been a conciliar article ended up being polemical.

    I am sure there are some people out there who believe that any kind of difference in wealth and status is wrong, but I have not met any of them. Rather, people like Wallis oppose gross income inequality because they believe it threatens democracy (when, for instance, money buys access to power) and social justice (when, for instance, the capacities of children are grossly limited by the circumstances of their parents). That is why I said your thought experiment was a straw man.

    So…you asked me what I thought, and that’s it. My main criticism is what I first said. Market liberals are not bad people with bad motives. Neither are those who oppose market liberalism just jealous.

  • David J. Dunn

    Okay. This is a side comment, but a neat coincidence. I happened to reading Wealth of Nations this morning when I came upon this quotation: “Wherever there is great property, there is great inequality. For one very rich man, there must be at least five hundred poor.”

    So Adam Smith does not like your thought experiment either. ;-)