Should We Strive for Income Equality?

Income equality seems to be an intuitional or instinctual moral posture in today’s economy and politics. It was behind the 1% protests and is running on high octane in the Democratic runoff to see who will represent the Democrats in the 2016 election. I’d like to open up a conversation about income equality on the blog today.

I’ll begin with the Bible, for so far as I know there are only two really strong lines about equality — income or otherwise — in the Bible. Notice this set of lines from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians:

Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality.  At the present time your plenty will supply what they need,  so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. The goal is equality, as it is written: “The one who gathered much did not have too much, and the one who gathered little did not have too little.”  

Paul did not live in a world that was remotely resembling income equality, but he has a vision for the church that sounds like income equality. But that is not what he actually is saying. The word “equality” here suggests economic adequacy and balance rather than some kind of measurement that each person — scratch that — all persons have the same income and possessions and homes and fishing poles. He’s instead talking about those with more helping those with not enough and when the not-enoughs become more-than-enoughs, they too become givers to the not-enoughs. Nor is it wise for us to find an economic theory in the apostle Paul.

And then there’s the broadest of all equalities in Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free,  nor is there male and female,  for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” It is almost certainly overcooking the verse to say this teaches equality, though the idea does cross the mind. What is taught here is oneness. Distinctions remain but they don’t call in worth before God or for worth and status and honor in the fellowship called the church. Difference and diversity are both celebrated in the church and transcended in a powerful fellowship of oneness. But Paul’s churches had income equality for that is why he raised funds from the diaspora for the poor in Jerusalem.

From the Torah of Moses right through the prophets and into Jesus and the apostles the Bible has a very distinct and emphatic moral vision: economic exploitation is wrong, poverty is to be worked against with vigor, and the wealthy are demanded to share with those who are in need. That’s not income equality but compassionate economics, and in our Western countries perhaps we could call it compassionate capitalism. (All Western countries are more or less capitalist.)

But our current media seems fixated on income inequality in a way that suggests income inequality is the worst of moral outrages. No society has ever had income inequality, the only “system” that seems to advocate for income equality is communism, which works only on paper, or socialism, which the 20th Century proved to be nothing less than a colossal failure.

Here’s a good example of the modern craze and the right response from Fraser Nelson:

Your average milkman has more wealth than the world’s poorest 100 million people. Doesn’t that show how unfair the world is? Or given that the poorest 100 million will have negative assets, doesn’t it just show how easily statistics can be manipulated for Oxfam press releases? They’re at it again today: the same story, every January. “Almost half of the world’s wealth is owned by just 1% of the world’s population” it said in 2014. It has done variants on that theme ever year, each time selling it as a new “big” story. All peddling the impression that inequality is getting worse, that the rich are engorging themselves at the expense of the poorest.

This narrative (which is discredited as it is old) suits Oxfam’s fundraisers. (Rich dudes hoard power! “Even it up” by giving Oxfam money!) But the real picture is rather different. It looks like this:-

Global capitalism is lifting people out of poverty at the fastest rate in human history. Global inequality is narrowing, fast. Oxfam will not, and cannot, dispute such things – but this doesn’t suit its new anticapitalist agenda. So it talks about rich people and tax havens instead.

In fact, the press for equality as a theory denies our humanity and our ineradicable uniquenesses. The only way to create equality is by way of tyranny. John Adams, our second President, once wrote these words:

Nature, which has established in the universe a chain of being and universal order, descending from archangels to microscopic animalcules [what might that mean?], has ordained that no two objects shall be perfectly alikeand no two creatures perfectly equal.

He does believe in two kinds of equality, and he continues:

Although, among men, all are subject by nature to equal laws of morality, and in society have a right to equal laws for their government, yet no two men are perfectly equal in person, property, understanding, activity, and virtue, or ever can be made so by any power less than that which created them; and whenever it becomes disputable between two individuals or families, which is the superior, a fermentation commences, which disturbs the order of all things until it is settled, and each knows his place in the opinion of the public.

O yes, very clear: this is some ancient language and the categories of a different era, but good ol’ John Adams has it just about right: no two persons are the same, no two are equal.  Each is unique in so many ways.

So, I ask you readers, What do the pundits and politicians and activists mean it mean when they say we should strive for income equality? That each job should pay the same wage? That each should have the same cookie-cutter home in which to live? That each should have the same teachers? That each should be given the same time on the same playing field? What does income equality mean?

Does it really mean equality?

Does it mean fair opportunity for employment and the pursuit of happiness?

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