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.