Envy Crackles

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I recently raised a question in a Facebook thread that I wanted to expand on here. It has to do with the increasingly common idea that “inequality of income” is inherently a moral problem.

So here’s the question:

If you had a magic button in front of you which, if you pressed it, would result in all the poor people in the world being 5X better off than they are now, in real terms, but the price would be that the top 1% would be 100X times better off, would you press the button? Pressing the button would increase the inequality, but it would decrease everyone’s day-to-day income problems. Is the mere fact of the inequality a moral problem? Is the size of the gulf between rich and poor a moral problem?

There is another way of asking the question, only this way highlights the darkness of envy a little bit better. If you had a button in front of you that would cut the standard of living that poor people have by 50%, but would also cut the standard of living that the top 1% had by a much greater amount, thus reducing the inequality, would you press that button?

In case you hadn’t anticipated it, we do have a working version of this second button. It is called “government help.”

One of the central culprits in generating economic fallacies is the sin of envy. It is a creeping, cancerous wickedness. The questions given above are a litmus test for envy. If you would hesitate pressing the button in the first scenario, for even a moment, then you have discovered that your heart is a central part of the problem. And anyone who hesitates pressing the first button will end his course of economic damnation by insisting that hellish poverty for all is far to be preferred than inequitable wealth for all.

Now this is a thought experiment intended to reveal attitudes. In the thought experiment, we are assuming that nobody is getting ripped off or murdered in order to achieve these results. We are assuming no sweetheart deals with the White House. We are pretending that I am not a manufacturer of the new curly light bulbs lobbying Congress in order to make my old school Edisonian competition illegal. No dirty work.

I am also assuming that it would be genuine good economic news that doesn’t have a hidden price tag sprung on everyone five years down the road. In other words, we are simply talking about genuine good news for all that increases the inequality vs. genuine bad news for all that decreases it. Under those circumstances, what should we choose? We have isolated the factor we are testing for (inequality of income), and so what do we think about it?

I am not trying to square the circle here. There are rough approximations of these two kinds of societies on earth already, and if you are fleeing a refugee camp and are at the airport trying to decide which kind to go to, which kind do you go to? Do you go where you will be better off, and others will be way better off? Or do you go where everyone is equally miserable? If the latter, then why not just head back to the refugee camp?

The political philosopher John Rawls once mooted his version of the Golden Rule by telling us that we should envision the structure of our ideal society without knowing where we were going to be born into it. His version tended to flatten the inequities in society because your odds of being born a serf were very high, and your odds of being born the czar were low.

But like all zero sum thinking, this approach to cutting up the pie into very, very equal pieces tends to assume that the whole pie can only come in one size, and that this means that more for him automatically means less for somebody else. This is what always gives the “unfairness” argument what little traction it has.
But suppose I could create an ideal society where all the “serfs” were 5X better off than the average citizen today is, and the one percenters were demigods living in sky palaces. Now what?

To complain about such thought experiments as being “unrealistic” and that they fail to take into account the “unintended consequences,” is to miss the point. And the thought experiment does not reduce everyone to the level of materialistic cattle, wherein we are assuming that a man’s soul consists of the abundance of his possessions (Luke 12:15). Of course it does not. What does it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?

But if someone is insisting that we fix the spiritual problem caused by inequality of possessions, and I propose a means of addressing the problem, to the satisfaction of all the non-envious people in the room, it is odd if that person would then turn around and complain that I am reducing everyone to the status of mere owners of goods. If we are going to play that way, then what I should do is simply tell all the poor people to count it all joy when they meet various trials. Good for their souls.

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Kelly Kitchens
10 years ago

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David Douglas
David Douglas
10 years ago

If you had a button in front of you that would cut the standard of living that poor people have by 50%, but would also cut the standard of living that the top 1% had by a much greater amount, thus reducing the inequality, would you press that button? In case you hadn’t anticipated it, we do have a working version of this second button. It is called “government help.” Because wanting to do good with other people’s money (beyond God’s stated boundaries) almost always is idiotic, the idiocy is rolled out into all the unintended corners. Doug’s button of… Read more »

Luke B
10 years ago

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Melissa Dow
Melissa Dow
9 years ago

I think many people who still argue against income inequality are doing it because of the long-term potential results of the inequality that you ruled out in your example above, which means that this hypothetical might not be the best way to argue against them (although it could still be a way to identify envy). I’ve been observing these debates from the sidelines for quite a while. From what I’ve seen, it looks like the real debate is about the results of the inequality. One side says that there are naturally-occurring harmful consequences of inequality; the other side says that,… Read more »

jeers1215
jeers1215
9 years ago

I think what animates some of the more thoughtful Marxists is the spillover effect economic inequality has for power relationships. They’re not upset that one person has more possessions than someone else; what they don’t like are the political and legal advantages that wealth disparities create. You can argue until you’re blue in the face that none of the prescribed state-centered solutions have ever worked, but it’s the ideal that motivates them, and they believe, slowly and surely, science will continually advance to perfect the state.

katecho
katecho
9 years ago

jeers1215 wrote: “You can argue until you’re blue in the face that none of the prescribed state-centered solutions have ever worked, but it’s the ideal that motivates them, and they believe, slowly and surely, science will continually advance to perfect the state.” After a certain point, argument won’t be necessary. God has made the world in such a way that folly hurts and folly fails. The civic santa claus eventually dies of obesity. Our government in the U.S. (actually, we the future taxpayers) is already at least $18 trillion in debt. So if science is going to perfect the State,… Read more »

Brad Littlejohn
9 years ago

Pastor Wilson, Forgive me if I’m misreading you, but it looks to me like this argument boils down to a smoke-and-mirrors exercise. You say, more or less, “Let’s ask people a question about wealth inequality to see if it bothers them. Then, let’s abstract from consideration all the zillion concrete concerns that people connect with wealth inequality. Once we’ve done that, all we have left is a dissatisfaction with the bare fact of inequality, which we name envy. Now, let’s assume that everyone who answered our initial question the wrong way—i.e., who were bothered by income inequality—were similarly abstracting. Well… Read more »

Philip
9 years ago

Brad you are missing the point. We are always going to have inequality no matter what we do, since, “the poor you will always have with you.” What matters for our purposes in this county is, do we allow the real standard of living to rise and give us all things like ipads and washing machines, or do we suppress the rising standards and mire everyone in poverty like the USSR did? In both cases you have inequality which might lead to exploitation, but in the first case you don’t have to hold your children in your arms as they… Read more »

katecho
katecho
9 years ago

Brad Littlejohn wrote: To say, “inequality *in itself* (i.e., in abstraction from all its causes and effects) isn’t a problem,” makes logical sense, but so does saying, “The Ebola virus *in itself* isn’t a problem, it’s just the vomiting, diarrhea, hemorrhaging, and death associated with it.” But I believe this is Doug’s point. Wealth inequality isn’t the problem, it’s the diarrhea, vomiting, hemorrhaging, etc. So let’s deal with those directly. Destroying wealth, or wealth inequality, will not correct the “real-world concrete negative consequences” that bother people. We are poor doctors if we think it will. One major way of dealing… Read more »

katecho
katecho
9 years ago

I don’t usually quote myself, but I had just said: “We may well say that money and wealth inequality reveals the heart. In that sense it is a diagnostic tool of the condition of our heart, just as the words that come out of our mouths reveal our hearts. Words can bless or curse. So can wealth inequality. I repeat, so can wealth inequality.” I thought of this after the fact, but Jesus actually gave us a parable related to wealth inequality in the parable of the talents. Notice how the variation in the number of talents was no reflection… Read more »

RFB
RFB
9 years ago

The state in its most (so-called) benevolence is still nothing more than a butinski using Baroness Thatcher ‘s currency (OPM: Other People’s Money). One of my favorite quotes from Lewis says it nicely: “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval… Read more »

katecho
katecho
9 years ago

Great quote. So timely. Thanks.

Brad Littlejohn
9 years ago

To Katecho—when you say things like “the solution is not to abolish relative wealth” you misrepresent the objection. The argument is not that any form of inequality is automatically problematic, and therefore all inequality must be abolished. Obviously, that is not the case. That experiment was tried, and failed dismally by general agreement. The argument is that above a certain level, increasing inequality poses greater and greater social and political problems, as well as raising more and more serious questions about justice. Once again, the current debate is not over *whether* there will be inequality, but only whether there is… Read more »

James Bradshaw
James Bradshaw
9 years ago

The problem isn’t the disparity in wealth, per se, but the disparity of living conditions. There are many in the top ranks who could see their wealth reduced by half (or more) and still have enough money to live lavishly for more than one lifetime. Meanwhile, there are others who can put in 40 hours a week and still need public assistance just to afford shabby living conditions (if any) and meager sustenance, not to mention sufficient funds for health care, the inevitable car repairs, etc. I’m not suggesting a mandated federal minimum wage: there are too many disparities in… Read more »

Roger Keane
Roger Keane
9 years ago

If we are just talking about a thought experiment, I think your premise is good, and exposes what is really at the heart of Liberalism. However, we’re dealing with reality on the ground here, no buttons involved, and while I’m a pretty conservative, free market-oriented guy, I think it’s not wrong to say that there’s something wrong with society when it is impossible to earn enough to support a family without learning how to code. Not that we’re there yet, but I think that if players in the free market colluded to pay their employees less than a living wage… Read more »

Robert
Robert
9 years ago

A lot of this is race baiting

katecho
katecho
9 years ago

Brad Littlejohn wrote: To Katecho—when you say things like “the solution is not to abolish relative wealth” you misrepresent the objection. The argument is not that any form of inequality is automatically problematic, and therefore all inequality must be abolished. Littlejohn used an analogy comparing the concrete problems of wealth inequality to an Ebola outbreak. Perhaps his argument was not that any amount of Ebola is automatically problematic, and therefore all Ebola must be abolished — but it sure looked like that was where he was headed with that analogy. Littlejohn’s argument was apparently that a little bit of Ebola… Read more »

Andrew W
Andrew W
9 years ago

Brad, I think you’re conflating “inequality” and “greed”. Yes, there are strong warnings in Scripture against the acquisitiveness of the powerful (e.g. Is 5:8), and against those who will not show generosity and compassion. But the very act of having much is never, to my understanding, portrayed as evil. Abraham and Job are both commended for being wealthy and having many servants; they are not rebuked for being wealthy masters. Misers are rebuked for being misers; not for being wealthy. The envious spirit of our age has moved from the holiness of “you shall do right with what you have… Read more »

Robert
Robert
9 years ago

Living near two Indian Reservations is that I see that a lot of their income comes from tribally owned businesses, not all of which are casinos. They use some profits to finance some of their social programs.

katecho
katecho
9 years ago

Brad Littlejohn wrote: “If the Bible weren’t concerned about runaway wealth inequality, then how exactly would you explain the jubilee and sabbath-year debt release laws?” God is certainly concerned with oppression, economic or otherwise. As a matter of moral principle, and the golden rule, we are not to seek to bind the poor to inescapable indebtedness. We are to give to the truly needy, not make loans to them for their very subsistence. But wealth inequality neither entails nor implies any such oppression or abuses. Littlejohn’s attempt to confuse these concepts is not helpful. Jubilee and debt-release teach us Christ’s… Read more »

Andrew Lohr
9 years ago

To equalize by force takes a non-equal Equalizer, so the egalitarian ideal itself inherently makes things worse rather than better on its own terms. So abandon the ideal.

O’Romneycare did not hire doctors to make health more equal; it hired IRS agents to make power less equal. Stirling the racist adulterer zillionaire wanted some (not much) inequality between races, and the Equalizers came down on him like a ton of bricks.

oldfatslow
oldfatslow
9 years ago

Apropos of nothing, all I hear is Jack Lemmon shouting, “Push the button, Max!”

ofs

David Moody
David Moody
9 years ago

Recently, a European missionary who has been to many parts of the world visited us in America. It was his first time in America. In the process of visiting, he passed the run-down (high-crime) area of town. His response was to say, “America, I have seen your ghettoes, and they don’t look that bad to me.” Although it is true that “the poor you shall always have with you,” it is also true that in a society blessed by God, “there shall be no poor.” Our poor are richer than most rich in other countries. We should thank the Lord… Read more »

Matt
Matt
9 years ago

I’d wager 95% of liberals would press the first button, and 95% wouldn’t press the second one. As a thought experiment it hasn’t proven much.

Melody
Melody
9 years ago

I’ve yet to see even one person who decries income inequality “…let it begin with me.” You will NEVER see it happen. The only thing that voiced concern does for income inequality accomplishes is making those at the top feel awfully good about themselves while they do their best to remove any ability for others to join them at the top and scatter a few dollars of other peoples’ money to the poor.

Jane Dunsworth
Jane Dunsworth
9 years ago

I’d wager 95% of liberals would press the first button, and 95% wouldn’t press the second one. As a thought experiment it hasn’t proven much.

If your speculation is correct, and I daresay it probably is, then it has shown that what people argue for in theory may not be what they’d do if the actual implications of it were very simply presented to them, and they actually listened.

katecho
katecho
9 years ago

Matt wrote:

“I’d wager 95% of liberals would press the first button, and 95% wouldn’t press the second one. As a thought experiment it hasn’t proven much.”

The ballot box would seem to indicate otherwise. How much are you wagering?

DCHammers
9 years ago

Matt, Pulling a number out of the air and then declaring the conversation done. Now where have I seen that recently?

Matt
Matt
9 years ago

Well to be honest, I didn’t account for the portion of the population which didn’t understand the question at all, or didn’t care, and therefore picked randomly. So maybe 90/10 is a better estimate.

In any case, government intervention does not always impoverish everyone. Exhibit A: Social Security.

St. Lee
9 years ago

“I’d wager 95% of liberals …”

I’d wager 95% of liberals too, if only they were mine to wager. :-)

St. Lee
9 years ago

On a more serious note though, I did a quick search and found an article from 2007 stating that the worldwide average income is (was) $7000 per year. What do you think the percentage is of liberals who would be willing to reduce their income to that level (and the reduced standard of living that necessarily goes with it) in the name of income equality? I doubt that many have considered that the “poor” in this country would actually have to take a “pay” cut for income equality to become a reality.

katecho
katecho
9 years ago

Matt wrote: “In any case, government intervention does not always impoverish everyone. Exhibit A: Social Security.” Wait a minute. Is this a concession that government intervention usually impoverishes? If so, then this a breakthrough. Welcome aboard, Matt. However, I would have to cross-examine Exhibit A. Social Security funds are not held in reserve, but are “invested” back into government treasuries. By loaning to itself, the government (already buried in soaring national debt) is able to further leverage their spending on any unrelated programs. Eventually the government must make good to Social Security when the bonds are redeemed. How can they… Read more »

Matt
Matt
9 years ago

The average senior was much poorer before SS. The state of abject poverty many seniors lived and died in during the depression was what drove the creation of SS. While the fund has been mismanaged in the past, often to feed the military-industrial complex, that doesn’t change that it has significantly reduced poverty. This is why it’s so popular and why any politician determined to tinker with it will go down in flames. There are other examples. TANF, EITC, food stamps or WIC, etc. There are also other ways the government has improved all our lives, like smallpox eradication, or… Read more »

J
J
9 years ago

Hey Matt, run your own small business with a few employees for a year or two and get back to me on how “improved” things are when you’ve payed those SS taxes on both ends.

Andrew W
Andrew W
9 years ago

In addition, government intervention often doesn’t have the claimed benefits. For example, in Australia about 15 years ago the government came up with a scheme to make home ownership more affordable, by giving “first home buyers” a grant of between $5k and $15k. What was the result? House prices rose by a comparable amount. So who ultimately benefited? Those who already owned houses and we selling them. Imagine if our response to “social security” was to encourage people to invest in their children and grandchildren. It wouldn’t deal with all issues, and may thus leave some need for charity or… Read more »

ST
ST
9 years ago

Pastor Wilson, et al.,

So, of course, then, if there was a magic button to:

1) equally ration our societies wealth, then you would push that; or

2) invert the population, so that the bottom 1% were now the top 1%, etc.,

then you would equally find these to not be a problem as well, correct?

Thanks.

ST
ST
9 years ago

Okay, well being in this magical world, I have found two more buttons that I think fit your desires better. 1) Poof! Everyone’s wealth is increased – the wealthiest of us all will receive a 1% increase of his overall wealth and everyone below will be brought up to the level where he began (I am sure we could get more intricate and creative with our numbers, but…). 2) Poof, poof! The wealthiest man again gets a 1% increase, but everyone else gains double the amount that they were below him at the present – effectively inverting the whole (you… Read more »