On The Question of Inequality

There’s been some discussion of inequality in posts and comments here recently. I have ambitions to write a series of the particular challenges I believe our country is facing in regards to inequality in a modern high-skill-based economy, but given recent discussion I’d like to open with something fairly open-ended.

John Henry pointed out that the Catechism of the Catholic Church addresses the question of equality to some extent in its section on Human Solidarity:

1935 The equality of men rests essentially on their dignity as persons and the rights that flow from it:

Every form of social or cultural discrimination in fundamental personal rights on the grounds of sex, race, color, social conditions, language, or religion must be curbed and eradicated as incompatible with God’s design.40

1936 On coming into the world, man is not equipped with everything he needs for developing his bodily and spiritual life. He needs others. Differences appear tied to age, physical abilities, intellectual or moral aptitudes, the benefits derived from social commerce, and the distribution of wealth.41 The “talents” are not distributed equally.42

1937 These differences belong to God’s plan, who wills that each receive what he needs from others, and that those endowed with particular “talents” share the benefits with those who need them. These differences encourage and often oblige persons to practice generosity, kindness, and sharing of goods; they foster the mutual enrichment of cultures:

I distribute the virtues quite diversely; I do not give all of them to each person, but some to one, some to others. . . . I shall give principally charity to one; justice to another; humility to this one, a living faith to that one. . . . And so I have given many gifts and graces, both spiritual and temporal, with such diversity that I have not given everything to one single person, so that you may be constrained to practice charity towards one another. . . . I have willed that one should need another and that all should be my ministers in distributing the graces and gifts they have received from me.43

1938 There exist also sinful inequalities that affect millions of men and women. These are in open contradiction of the Gospel:

Their equal dignity as persons demands that we strive for fairer and more humane conditions. Excessive economic and social disparity between individuals and peoples of the one human race is a source of scandal and militates against social justice, equity, human dignity, as well as social and international peace.44

Now, it strikes me that there are two kinds of inequality that are discussed here, and one kind of inequality that is often discussed which I think may not be what is being talked about.

1) Inequality of rights and human dignity. Clearly, the above addresses the question of inequality of human dignity, both before the law and within the social and economic realms. It would be wrong, according to this, to say that someone has fewer legal rights because he is a member of a specific ethnic group, or because he was born a peasant, or because he is of the wrong caste. Similarly, it would be wrong to deny someone economic opportunity because of his race, caste, religion, culture, etc.

2) Extreme poverty. In the gospels we read the story of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man has more than enough, and yet right at his door is a beggar who is less well fed than even the rich man’s dogs. That the rich man clearly has far more than he needs to take care of himself and his household, yet fails to share the excess to meet the basic needs of someone so near to him is clearly an injustice. We see similar injustices in the world today on a much larger scale, especially as we have entered a period in which (contrary to the entire history of the world up to this point) nearly all hunger is the result of politics rather than lack of resources. Corrupt regimes in poverty-stricken countries (and the revolutionary militias that fight them) often keep needed foods and medicines from getting to those who desperately need them because of war, political and ethnic tension, or sheer corruption. Holding onto wealth in the face of poverty which you are fully able to ameliorate is an injustice.

However, there is another form of inequality, which is often talked about within the US political landscape, which I am less sure is being condemned here. Imagine I am right at the US median: I am the married father of a family with 2.3 children with a total family income of roughly 60k. My inflation adjusted earnings are slightly, but not dramatically more than those of families like mine twenty years before. However, during that same period of time, the very richest 1% of Americans have seen their income increase dramatically. Is that in itself a moral problem?

If our theoretical middle-class family’s basic human needs and dignity are being respected (and on the world scene, he himself is fabulously wealthy) I can’t really see how it’s any of his business whether the rich man living a few miles away makes 500k or 1M or 20M a year. Now, that rich man may himself have significant moral obligations to use that wealth to help others, but I don’t see that there is any sort of moral imperative in the above to make sure that he never makes that much money in the first place. Nor does the middle-class man have any grievance against the rich one.

15 Responses to On The Question of Inequality

  • You are missing a core aspect of Church teaching, best enunciated in paragraph 303 of the Compendium:

    “The economic well-being of a country is not measured exclusively by the quantity of goods it produces but also by taking into account the manner in which they are produced and the level of equity in the distribution of income, which should allow everyone access to what is necessary for their personal development and perfection. An equitable distribution of income is to be sought on the basis of criteria not merely of commutative justice but also of social justice that is, considering, beyond the objective value of the work rendered, the human dignity of the subjects who perform it. Authentic economic well-being is pursued also by means of suitable social policies for the redistribution of income which, taking general conditions into account, look at merit as well as at the need of each citizen.”

  • This presupposes the notion that the sheer competency of church teaching extends to matters such as these (i.e., with respect to even economy).

    To my mind, I would think that the competency of the Church lies strictly within the realm of Faith & Morals and does not actually extend to even matters of economic system.

  • Well, no, of course it extends to the economic system. Even the most cursory review of the OT shows that economic injustice is something God cares about (as in a matter of sins crying to Heaven for vengeance).

    So, MM is right to cite that section and the Church is certainly right to give a rip about whether the economic system is just.

    Or should She have just shut up about communism?

  • Of course, the tricky part is whether a particular economic system fails to measure up to the concerns laid out in section 303, and whether or not “mere” numberical inequity is implicated by that.

    But, let’s just say I’m more than a little receptive to concerns about the “objective value of work rendered” when we consider a financial system that seems to have rewarded greater and greater levels of chicanery and obfuscation over the past generation.

  • “We see similar injustices in the world today on a much larger scale, especially as we have entered a period in which (contrary to the entire history of the world up to this point) nearly all hunger is the result of politics rather than lack of resources.”

    Not only politics, but reckless greed.

    http://www.foodfirst.org/en/node/2402

    “There is now wide agreement that speculation in food was the major cause of the skyrocketing food prices that led to the 2008 global food crisis.

    Though commodities prices are down, some investors are already betting on a rebound by the third or forth quarter. Despite low prices now, all the ingredients of 2008’s toxic, speculative bubble are still with us today.”

    Speculation is condemned as a sin in more than one of the social encyclicals, too. This is my problem: when, in the name of “freedom” people are allowed to do things such as this, that have a combined and cumulative effect that threatens the very lives of others.

  • I agree with MM that economic well being can’t be measured simply by the amount of goods it produces. A country where almost all the wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few is not necessarily better off than a country where there is less wealth overall but it is more evenly distributed. I don’t think, though, that this contradicts anything in Darwin’s post.

  • There is now wide agreement that speculation in food was the major cause of the skyrocketing food prices that led to the 2008 global food crisis.

    Wide agreement among whom? Certainly not among economists.

  • Thoughtful post Darwin – you’ve done lots of great work lately!

    To MM’s quote from the compendium I would reply (hastily): An equitable distribution of income implies that income will not be equal. Justice obliges us to give to unequals unequally, and we are certainly created very unequally. (How bland life would be if we weren’t!)

    As to redistribution according to need – sure – but what does the Church teach that we really need?

  • Dale Price,

    Apologies, but where exactly does it state either in Scripture or in Tradition that the Church teaching even on matters of economic systems is actually infallible?

    To my mind, if the Church’s competency extends even to this, that even (what should rightfully be considered) her opinion concerning what type of economic system entire nations should subscribe to is actually indeed infallible, then I take it only marvelous Utopia awaits us all if only the World were wise enough to yield to the Church’s financial expertise (although her own balance sheets would have me skeptical even in that regard, but at any rate…) and have her impose upon the rest of the world’s populace the kind of economic system that She would have us all follow.

  • Wow, e, I scanned my previous post for phrases touting the Church’s economic thought as the immanentization of the economic eschaton, but came up empty. Perhaps my lack of rest, occasioned by a hit and run on our minivan, a bout of explosive nausea, and a barfing toddler who managed to call 911 and summon the police to our humble abode this morning have all managed to cloud my reading skills, but I still don’t see it. I’m inclined to call “straw-man,” but I’m really pooped at the moment.

    As a rule, I don’t look for the Infalli-label in Church teaching. By that logic, I could contracept.
    Playing the “But is it infallible?” card grates, to put it mildly. Supporters of women’s ordination do it all the time.

    Look, either the Church is a teacher, or she is not. She may not be the clearest teacher at times, to be sure.

    But treating her like an oracle on, say, theft, but like the crazy aunt who needs to be shuffled back up to the attic posthaste when she starts talking about paying a worker a just wage strikes me as a staggering exercise in special pleading, if not quite completely schizoid.

    Bluntly, you seem to be ignoring that there is a moral dimension of economic life. Again, by your logic, the Church’s warnings about communism could be just as airily dismissed.

    It at least behooves you to consider the body of informed teaching that has issued forth under the Popes since Leo XIII. Which, as it turns out, is quite open to free enterprise and hostile to statist collectivism. It is the furthest thing from imposed–snarf. If it is, it’s about as well “imposed” as Humanae Vitae, with similar consequences for our moral lives.

  • Dale,

    She have just shut up about communism?

    Communism/socialism is incompatible with church teaching because it explicitly rejects the true dignity of man, capitalism does not in it’s essence oppose the Church but must be bounded by limits to protect the common good. This is apples and oranges.

    I don’t look for the Infalli-label in Church teaching. By that logic, I could contracept.

    you’re in serious error on this. The Church infallibly teaches that every act of contraception is intrinsically evil.

    Supporters of women’s ordination do it all the time.

    And they are in serious error here as well, this teaching is clearly enunciated as infallible.

    You don’t further your argument with wildly inaccurate analogies.

    I do have concerns about the translation and interpretation of this article of the “Compendium of the Social Doctrine” (there are many compendiums, let’s not lend this one any more weight than the Church grants it). I’d like to know what is the original authoritative source for this paragraph.

    Regarding the food crisis… the politics which leads to it are more to do with African dictators and Islamic-fascism than with price speculation.

    Interesting to note that the US vessel captured by Islamic-fascist pirates last week was carrying food aid to the starving of Africa, and so was the vessel attacked subsequently.

  • MM,

    I’m not clear that the section you quote from the Compendium of Social Teaching says anything beyond the sections of the Catechism that I already quoted, nor does it depart from my point. From the section you quoted:

    the level of equity in the distribution of income, which should allow everyone access to what is necessary for their personal development and perfection.

    From this it seems pretty clear that sufficient equality that all members of society has access to what is necessary for their personal development and perfection, but it is not at all clear to me that it is an element of such personal development and perfection that one have the satisfaction of knowing that no one has significantly more than you do.

    Again, the point that I’m trying to be clear on is: inequality becomes a serious moral problem when it means that some in society lack either basic human dignity or the basic needs of life while others enjoy excess. However, it is not at all clear to me that it is an injustice for others to have a thousands times more wealth than I, so long as I have the basic necessities for life and human dignity.

  • Dale,

    “It is the furthest thing from imposed-snarf.”

    I don’t think you quite caught the gist of that comment.

    What I was trying to express is that if you should happen to believe that the kind of economic system that the Church conceives as ideal is actually infallible and, in all actuality, an efficacious remedy to the plight that has historically plagued mankind, then presumably a nation following such an economic system conceived ideal by the Church would ultimately result in only positive success & properity for all.

    However, given the reality of the world, I highly doubt that.

  • Darwin,

    I do agree with your main point; I have no desire myself to be extremely wealthy and I don’t look at anyone else’s extreme wealth as an offense against me.

    But there is a) the problem of inequality on a global scale, which I do believe deprives many of the necessities of a dignified life (simply existing as an organic life form is not necessarily an existence worthy of a human being), and b) the problem of political inequality – those with great wealth can and often do manipulate the political system to their advantage.

    A rough equality, falling at least in a range of highs and lows, would seem to be necessary either way.

  • Joe stated: “the problem of political inequality – those with great wealth can and often do manipulate the political system to their advantage.”

    Gee, I wonder why is that? That is, if what you would so happily desire is the kind of monstrously bloated leviathan state, then this is exactly what you’ll get as this oligarchy is but an unavoidable inevitable consequence!

    The Rich Pay for the Federal Government

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