The Materialistic Fight Against Income Inequality

In an article for the Imaginative Conservative earlier this year, Arthur Brooks remarked on the reputation of the modern conservative movement as materialistic and the liberal reputation as moral and good-hearted.

“This is one of the greatest political ironies of our time: In fact, it is materialistic to presume that money and the redistribution of wealth alone can solve tangled social problems. It is materialistic to conflate human dignity with one’s position on the income scale, and to assert that anyone is oppressed if others earn more than they do.”

The charge that those who fixate on income or wealth inequality as a great evil and regard its lessening as a promising solution to all of society’s ills are materialistic and morally misguided is rarely heard today. We hear about the immorality of material inequality most often from those on the Left and most strikingly from my beloved Pope Francis. The argument Arthur Brooks is making has merit, however. In fact, Brooks is not the first to recognize the gross materialism of the movement against income inequality. The best analysis I have yet found of the morality of inequality is in a 1987 paper by Harry Frankfurt titled, “Equality as a Moral Ideal.”

In this paper, Frankfurt adamantly denies that there is any moral value in material equality for its own sake and argues that focusing on material equality as a goal not only lacks moral weight, but creates and exacerbates “moral disorientation.” The paper is abstract and written from a philosophical perspective, but the implications for today’s political climate are evident nevertheless.

Frankfurt begins with this claim:

“Economic equality is not, as such, of particular moral importance. With respect to the distribution of economic assets, what is important from the point of view of morality is not that everyone should have the same but that each should have enough. If everyone had enough, it would be of no moral consequence whether some had more than others.”

Frankfurt calls this method of measuring just distribution of wealth the doctrine of sufficiency. In my experience, most advocates of greater equality of income, when pressed, will concede to this doctrine. In the paper, Frankfurt also notes that those who write about the evils of inequality often cite examples of poverty to back up their moral claims, indicating that they are less disgusted by any income gap and more disgusted by the persistent needs of others. On the other hand, those who attempt to articulate the inherent value of material equality tend to use arguments about avoiding jealousy among people, thus giving credibility to the vice of envy, or admit to accepting more equality at the expense of a lower standard of living for everyone.

Whether the fight against inequality is driven by a misunderstanding of moral imperatives or truly egalitarian philosophy, it is materialistic and harmful all the same.  

A focus on the wealth or income gap, rather than the necessity of helping those in poverty, distorts the moral imperatives of both the individual and society as a whole. For the individual, it implies inherent value in money and material goods, when a right view of money and material possessions is as a means to other ends. Encouraging individuals to measure what they are due and what they need not as a function of their own goals and circumstances, but as a relative measure to what others have, is to distract them from loftier purposes. Explains Frankfurt:

“A concern for economic equality, construed as desirable in itself, tends to divert a person’s attention away from endeavoring to discover… what he really cares about and what will actually satisfy him, although this is the most basic and the most decisive task upon which an intelligent selection of economic goals depends. Exaggerating the moral importance of economic equality is harmful, in other words, because it is alienating.”

If a person regards material goods as inherently valuable, he or she has no reason to consider what ends those goods should serve and thus what ends he or she should strive towards. In a country where many can be said to fixate on “keeping up with the Jones’s,” it is clear that this moral disorientation is already occurring. Additionally, focusing on the gap often posits that a person with enough to live comfortably and pursue a vocation is still being done a great injustice by not having the same as another. A movement that emphasizes that kind of shallow outlook and engenders jealousy is immoral.

Furthermore, a focus on the gap in material wealth distracts society from the highest moral imperative to serve the most vulnerable and shows no regard for serving the entire human person. This gets to the heart of what Brooks meant when he said that assuming money can solve social problems is materialistic. Serving the entire human person is recognizing that those in need often require more than money, and that human flourishing  requires having social, spiritual, and emotional needs met in addition to economic needs. In his book, The Conservative Heart, Brooks identifies faith, family, community, and meaningful work as the four key elements of the happiness portfolio–the things besides money crucial to human flourishing.

Additionally, the focus on equality as a morally valuable and essential goal implies that a situation that created more equality would be preferable even if it also, by a natural trade-off, left more people in insufficiency. Edmund Burke wrote powerfully about this tradeoff:

“…The nature of a free economy means that such egalitarianism frequently has disastrous consequences: A perfect equality will indeed be produced; that is to say, equal want, equal wretchedness, equal beggary, and on the part of the partitioners, a woeful, helpless, and desperate disappointment. Such is the event of all compulsory equalizations. They pull down what is above. They never raise what is below: and they depress high and low together beneath the level of what was originally the lowest.”

This illustrates the important difference between the doctrine of sufficiency and that of equality, and it is critical that our society choose sufficiency for a greater number over the egalitarian vision. A world in which more have enough is surely preferable to one in which everyone is equal in poverty and misery.

Our ultimate focus should be on eliminating poverty, a term Frankfurt defines as “a condition from which we naturally recoil.” Those who conflate income inequality and poverty and who, as Brooks said, “assert that anyone is oppressed if others earn more than they do” misunderstand poverty and the human person. A person needs much more than material things. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs did not climb from food and shelter to cars and college, but from physical needs to social needs and eventually to vocational needs. The conservative looks at Americans and sees those who are lacking in necessities, lacking in community, lacking in spirituality, and lacking in purpose and look toward fostering a country capable of fulfilling all of these needs. This view considers the struggles of every person from every economic class and seeks to strengthen the individual with opportunity and freedom to pursue their own path. The income inequality alarmist looks at Americans and sees those who are too rich and those who are too poor and boils the whole of social strife and evil down to the distribution of things. They then look to government to solve complex, nuanced, and individual problems with one-size-fits-all solutions.

In today’s economy, those who pursue more economic equality and those who pursue sufficiency may agree on elements of economic policy, and those who strive to eliminate poverty of all kinds could very well lessen inequality in the process. Similarly, those who want to lessen inequality through the funding of expensive social programs may be providing for physical and vocational needs. However, a one-dimensional view of the person and a shallow view of the value of material objects is bound to distort the morality of the individual and mar the urgency and effectiveness with which he approaches challenges of poverty and unhappiness. 

In my next article, I will examine how the flaws of egalitarian solutions are already showing in public policy.

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