Should We Seek Economic Equality?

The Occupy movement in light of Church teaching.

(photo: Shutterstock)

“All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others,” declared the revised commandment of the animals in Orwell’s Animal Farm. Some of the more vocal members of the so-called Occupy Movement point to the vast disparity of incomes in the United States and see there an Orwellian scenario.

“Injustice!” they cry.

The wealthiest people — the top 1% — have experienced the greatest income growth in recent years; the 99% have seen smaller growth. The rich aren’t getting richer while the poor get poorer — all income groups have increased in wealth. But the vastly rich have gotten much wealthier (hundreds of times so) than the not-so-rich and the poor. Justice demands equality of income, say some Occupy supporters.

But does it? A principle of justice, long ago articulated by Aristotle and received into the Catholic Church’s ethical tradition, applies: Treat equals equally and unequals unequally in proportion to their inequality.

Does justice demand the same income or the same increase in income for all? In other words, does justice require economic equality? The answer depends on what we mean by economic equality.

Should the surgeon, with much-in-demand abilities, be paid the same as the night janitor, with much-less-in-demand skills?

If we should treat unequal things or persons unequally in proportion to their inequality then justice actually demands inequality here. The surgeon and the janitor shouldn’t be compensated the same because their skills aren’t equally valuable.

Some people will object that both the surgeon and janitor have equal dignity as human beings. But that doesn’t mean they should receive the same compensation for unequally valuable work.

Americans understandably stress equality. The Declaration of Independence states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal …” The equality in question there is fundamental human equality, to which the Catechism of the Catholic Church refers: “Created in the image of the one God and equally endowed with rational souls, all men have the same nature and the same origin. Redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ, all are called to participate in the same Divine beatitude: All, therefore, enjoy an equal dignity” (1934).

All human beings are said to be created equal because they have the same origin (God), possess the same nature (human nature), and all have been redeemed by Christ and called to the same destiny (union with God). Consequently, they all possess fundamental equality.

But fundamental equality — which the Catechism says entails equal personal rights (1935) — doesn’t mean human beings are equal in all respects. “On coming into the world,” the Catechism states, “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. The ‘talents’ are not distributed equally” (1936).

Note the reference to differences of “benefits derived from social commerce and the distribution of wealth.” Such differences or inequalities are part of God’s plan. His intention is that those with particular gifts use them to benefit others (1937).

Of course, unjust inequalities exist: “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” (1937).

Fundamental human equality requires all human beings be treated equal in certain respects. But differences exist among human beings that can lead to just inequalities, including inequalities of wealth. In such instances, requiring equality would be unjust because the persons in question are in a key respect unequal. While unjust inequalities can exist, including injustices of economic disparity, the mere existence of economic inequality isn’t unjust.

What about the claims of some in the Occupy Movement? Here we can make a few observations.

First, we need clarity regarding the economic value of work. The only meaningful economic measure is the value attached to work by those willing to pay for it. If people are willing to pay the 1% more for what they do than people are willing to pay the 99% for what they do, then the 1%, all other things being equal, ought to receive more for what they do.

Second, although the market determines the economic value of one’s activity, there is also the human or ethical value, rooted in one’s dignity as a person. “Even prior to the logic of a fair exchange of goods and the forms of justice appropriate to it,” wrote Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Centesimus Annus, “there exists something which is due man because he is man, by reason of his lofty dignity” (35).

The “something which is due man because he is man” is the same for all human beings. Fundamental human dignity and equality give moral value to a man’s effort to provide a decent life for himself and those for whom he is responsible. Consequently, everyone should have or should be able to obtain wealth sufficient to lead a decent human life because of what is due to people as human beings.

In other words, every man should be a “have” when it comes to a certain minimal level of economic resources; no one should be a “have not.” There should be, then, fundamental economic equality, even while justice sometimes demands economic inequality for wealth over and above the fundamental minimum. Justice requires fundamental economic equality, not absolute economic equality.

When some folks in the Occupy Movement decry the disparity of wealth, they err if they think unequal wealth is itself unjust. Different activities can justly have different economic value, even vastly different economic value, and thus people can justly receive vastly different incomes or vastly different rates of income growth.

On the other hand, if someone has less than the minimum any human being naturally needs in order to lead a good human life, that situation contradicts fundamental human dignity. Such an inequality of condition shouldn’t exist.

The challenge for those seeking social justice is to create a society in which everyone is a “have” — everyone can from his labor or other sources of income generate sufficient wealth to meet his moral obligations to himself and others — while ensuring that those whose work is economically more valuable receive their due, in proportion to its greater economic value.

Supporters of absolute economic equality go too far. But the Christian will be alert to the spiritual dangers of prosperity and its moral demands. Even wealth obtained honestly through hard work and the free exchange of the market can endanger one’s spiritual condition. What’s more, radical disparity of wealth poses grave moral challenges, especially when some people lack what they need to lead decent human lives. Greater wealth entails greater responsibility for the common good, which includes establishing fundamental economic equality. Jesus warned how hard it is for wealthy people to enter the Kingdom of God. With God, even this difficult feat is possible, of course. Yet, Jesus insisted, “To whom much is given, much will be required.”

Mark Brumley is an author of numerous books and articles and serves as CEO of Ignatius Press.

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