The War Against Inequality?

“In February 2007, the Reverend Jim Wallis announced that ‘God hates inequality.’”

“Bill Gates told the Harvard graduating class of 2007 that economic inequality was a moral outrage and that ‘reducing inequality is the highest human achievement.’”

[In a 1998 sermon, Pope John Paul II stated:] “In the international community, we thus see a small number of countries growing exceedingly rich at the cost of the increasing impoverishment of a great number of countries; as a result the wealthy grow ever wealthier, while the poor grow ever poorer.”

The above quotes are from chapter four of Jay Richards’ Money, Greed, and God, the book Dave and I keep mentioning on this blog and the one we’re using to facilitate the connections class on Sundays with economics professor Dr. Joe Haslag of Mizzou. I think it’s reasonable to say that the sentiments they express are fairly common. Consider the phrasing I ran just last week in a article by David Sirota:

As Wall Street executives make bank off bailouts, as millions of Americans see paychecks slashed and as our economic Darwinism sends more wealth up the income ladder—it’s surprising that appeals to capitalist piggery carry more electoral agency than ever.
So, for instance, we may be aware that our broken economy is creating destructive inequality…. [Emphasis mine in both quotations.]

But while it may be commonplace to assert the related ideas that (1) God hates inequality/inequality qualifies as a moral evil and (2) the rich get rich at the expense of the poor, such beliefs are problematic for one significant reason: it’s hard to see how they’re actually true. And while this post isn’t going to be an exhaustive defense of that statement, a few thoughts will hopefully help point us in the right direction.

1. It’s true that the Bible argues all human beings have value and dignity by virtue of being made in the image of God. And this is an incredibly important concept to understand and live in light of. But the necessity of equality of worth isn’t to be confused with the necessity of equality of possessions.

2. In his short but extremely valuable Business for the Glory of God, biblical scholar Wayne Grudem helpfully includes a chapter on inequality of possessions. He notes that several biblical passages support the idea that there will be inequality in the fully realized Kingdom of God, where sin and evil don’t exist (see, e.g., Luke 19:11-27, 2 Cor. 5:10). On this basis, not only it is it wrong to call inequality evil, but “the idea of inequality of stewardship in itself is given by God and must be good” (51). Grudem also addresses passages that have been used to suggest that the idea of equality of possessions was normative for the New Testament church (see particularly his discussion of Acts 4-5 on pp. 53-55).

3. To say that inequality in itself is not a problem isn’t to suggest that we should be content with real poverty. As Grudem notes, “There are some extreme kinds of inequalities in possessions and opportunities that are wrong in themselves. Poverty will not exist in the age to come…. Poverty in one of the results of living in a world affected by sin and the Fall, and by God’s curse on the productivity of the earth after Adam and Eve sinned” (57).

4. But what causes extreme poverty? Is it the fact that some get wealthy or increasingly more wealthy? To assert this is to perpetuate the myth that the amount of value or wealth in the world remains static, i.e, the pie remains constant, the only variable is what percentage of the pie you possess. But as Richards argues, this flies in the face of demonstrable facts. Consider: “From 1947 to 2005, the average income of the richest 20 percent of the U.S. population went up almost every year, from $8,072 in 1947 to $184,500 in 2005 (adjusted for inflation). But this didn’t come at the expense of the poor. On the contrary, the real incomes of the poorest 20 percent also went up almost every year, from $1584 in 1947 to $25,616 in 2005. And all this happened over a period in which the number of American families doubled, from about 37 million in 1947 to over 77 million in 2005. In other words, the total amount of wealth went up.”

5. The same is true internationally. If you want a helpful visual illustration of this, take a look at this short presentation by Gapminder. Paying particular attention to the horizontal axis of the presentation (average income adjusted for inflation), it becomes apparent that the overall amount of wealth in the world has vastly increased and many countries have experienced dynamic gains. Richards adds, “The percentage of people living in absolute poverty has dropped since 1970. …In fact, despite puddleglummish reports to the contrary, worldwide, statistics on infant mortality, life expectancy, and poverty have all improved dramatically in the last few decades” (92).

6. The demonstrable rise in worldwide wealth makes perfect sense in light of the fact that, as human being made in the image of God, we’re created to create, i.e., we can actually create things of increasing value from the raw materials of the world around us. Understood correctly, this is part of what it means to fulfill of the cultural mandate to steward the earth (see Gen. 1:26-28).

7. Richards adds another interesting point: “If trends continue, the gap between rich and poor will grow exponentially wider, even as the lot of the poor slowly improves. Except in the case of theft, this won’t be because the rich have extracted wealth from the poor. It will be because wealth creation is on an a trajectory of accelerated returns in some places and is scarcely being created in other places (104).

8. Why then do some countries lag behind? Richards comments: “Comparing countries, there is one unmistakable trend: countries with the rule of law and economic freedom prosper over time. Countries without these virtues do not” (92).

Much more can and should be said, including a handful of caveats that we need to keep in mind (e.g., rich people do exploit poor people at times, material wealth is definitely not the highest good or solution to all problems, etc.). But for now, I’ll just note that all this has real implications for how we view those who possess significant material wealth and, perhaps most importantly, how we propose to help those who are genuinely impoverished–something that should be of great concern to us as Christians. Regarding the latter issue, Richards is perhaps a bit strident, but his point is a provocative one:

We rightly see poverty as a problem, just as disease is a problem. But the problem isn’t that some people are rich and some are poor, and more than the problem of disease is that some people are healthy. The problem is quite simply that some are poor. If we want to bask in the wasteful heat of self-righteous indignation, then by all means, let’s keep blathering about income gaps. But if we really want to help the poor, we need to get our eyes off decoys and focus on the real problem—poverty—and its only known solution: creating wealth.

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