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A few thoughts on Wealth Inequality

March 5th, 2012 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

What sort of problem is wealth inequality, if it is a problem at all?

That's the question that's been ably posed to me by a commenter, who wrote the following:

  • wealth distribution is more unequal in the US now than at any time in its history, including pre-Great Depression. executives now are paid 100s of times more than their employees, whereas just a few decades ago it was a tiny fraction of that. 40% of the US’s wealth is in the hands of 1%. The top 400 earners make as much as the bottom 1/3 of the country… yadayadayada
  • wealth inequality is bad for democracy: as disparity grows, the concerns of the two ends become disparate as isolated.
  • wealth inequality is bad socially: as it grows, people live much much different lives. The wealthy live in tiny isolated hovels of gated communities, private schools and private subcultures
  • wealth inequality is bad economics: as disparity grows, it hurts our GDP because there are less people able to buy products at affordable rates. Our economy is best with a strong middle class, but wealth disparity hollows out the middle class.
  • wealth inequality is bad THEOLOGY: 1/5 of the Bible’s verses deal with money, and a good portion of it talks about the negative effects of the disparity of the wealthy and the poor. Shalom entails some sort of shared community life.

For all those reasons and more, I don’t think you’re dealing squarely with the issue when you say “I don’t have a problem with wealth inequality.” Neither do I; I think you can make a sound theological argument for certain people earning more than someone else.

What I have a problem with is when the two ends of the spectrum become so disparate that you need bodyguards and gated communities because the two sides are so unequal. It’s a problem of degree, then; not fact. There is a BIG gap between socialism and where we are today, and I’m asking you to address that.

He prefaced the comment by tweaking me for having written a book on the "spirituality of the material" and giving unsatisfactory answers on the subject of just material distribution.  Fair enough, I suppose, though it does lead into my first thesis.

  • While material goods and their proper distribution is wrapped up with our physicality as humans, we can speak of the latter without speaking of the former because human bodies are unique in their physicality (to put it badly).  To put it differently, I exist in a different relationship with my body than I do my physical goods or the world around me.  We should think through this quite a bit more in order to figure out the relationship between property rights and the other rights we bear as humans.
  • Wealth inequality may lead to social fragmentation, but it need not necessarily do so.  I take it that's partly the argument of Charles Murray's new book, which if someone wants to buy me I'll be happy to read and write about.  It's social cohesion that matters, but that means the argument needs to get framed properly.  The question isn't wealth inequality per se, but rather the forms of life that those with wealth choose to embrace.
  • That, of course, covers the Biblical point as well.  Shared community life is important, and we ought reflect about what charity actually means when disconnected from the context of genuine human relationships.  As Peter Leithart pointed out in an illuminating piece, within the structure of the Torah justice is attached to festivity.

But let's return to the point about the just distribution of resources.  In an important sense, if we evaluate the question in strictly material terms--the way the question is originally posed, and the way most objectors to wealth inequality pose it--we will miss the actual injustice at work in a society.

As Oliver O'Donovan puts it, poverty is marked by "an insufficient command of material resources to take a part in the communications of society, so that one's social role is impeded or denied altogether."  The marginalization of those without means is certainly a problem:  but "wealth inequality" as a critique begs  the question between whom?, and more often than not we've already smuggled the social problem into the terms of the question itself.

As such, we do well to be concerned about the growing social divisions.  But that is a separate critique, and a more poignant one, than the critique of wealth disparity per se.  To stop there is to stay within the terms of the materialism at the heart of our society, and not to offer a meaningful and viable alternative.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.