Fighting Inequality — Or Giving In to Envy?

Following the conclusion of the World Series, more than 150 players became free agents who could sell their services to the highest bidder. At least three of them — Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder and Jose Reyes — were expected to sign contracts that will significantly exceed $100 million dollars each.

Stated simply, each of them would likely make more in one game than approximately 90 percent of American households make in an entire year. Even the least-coveted free agent will make more than 99-plus percent of all American households.

What should government do about this inequality? What should Christians think about it? The reason I ask is that the question of “income inequality” seems to be on everyone’s minds these days.

But any discussion about income inequality must begin with a discussion of the role and purpose of government.

At the most basic level, government’s job is to preserve order, do justice, and restrain evil. Modern governments, like ours, also provide for common defense and general public health and welfare. This of course requires money, and that money comes from taxation.

But the Christian tradition also puts limits on the size and scope of government. The idea that government would take care of all the people all of the time and meet all their needs is foreign to Christianity. So, while the Bible contains many injunctions for helping the poor and teaches that the weak and the marginalized in our society are especially close to God’s heart, it does not prescribe policies. Instead, it makes it very clear that if we do not care for them and put their well-being at the top of our priorities, God will disown us just as we have disowned them (Matthew 25).

None of this requires income redistribution — taking money from one person and giving it to another to make them more “equal.” It doesn’t require punitive levels of taxation whose principal purpose is satisfying people’s sense of envy.

This is not to say that Christianity doesn’t care about equality. But the equality Christianity is concerned about is legal and political equality. It’s the equality that insists that rules are the same for everyone, regardless of how much they do or don’t make.

In Democracy in America, Alexis d’Tocqueville commented on the relationship between liberty and equality in early America. He wrote about how “labor is held in honor” and how our political institutions reflected this liberty. In this sense, earlier Americans reflected biblical notions of equality — the kind of equality proclaimed by the Hebrew prophets, who decried unjust courts and corrupt judges.

This is the kind of kind of equality that Christians ought to be working to promote. We shouldn’t focus so much on the results: After all, no law can make my skills as economically valuable as that of a three-time Most Valuable Player or those of a world-class brain surgeon.

But we should work to make sure that the law doesn’t treat them more favorably than other, lesser-paid, people. That’s why, for example, lessening the influence of lobbyists is so desperately needed today. Their entire purpose is to shape the rules so that one group benefits at the expense of everybody else.

That’s the kind of inequality that should concern us. The rest, whether we are talking about bond traders or ballplayers, is simply envy.

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