Economics 101 & Public Square

The Price of Equality, Part Two

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Last week, we began talking about the price of equality by discussing the biblical principles that frame how we think about income inequality. What the Bible says about human anthropology, specialization and division of labor, creativity, and hard work all matter to the discussion.

Simply put, the price of equality is that these principles are sacrificed. We will compromise the uniqueness that is both central to our humanity and a core implication of each of these principles. But why?

Economic Realities

God created us to be interdependent such that we can only serve the common good and each other when we come together. Market trade is what helps bring us together. When we focus on our comparative advantage, a topic that Hugh Whelchel is discussing in his blogs, we are liberated because we don’t have to do everything alone.

We are all part of the body of Christ, but we have distinct contributions to make that contribute to the overall flourishing of mankind. When we focus on what God created us to do and then trade with others who have different gifts, we are all able thrive better than we could on our own.

In a market setting, our gifts that we put to work in our jobs earn us wages. Those wages reflect the scarcity of the resources we offer in our labor. Neurosurgeons make vastly more than plumbers due to scarcity constraints, not because neurosurgeons are “better” people, and not because they are inherently corrupt.

These are economic realities that apply whether we like them or not. Many people do not like this reality and would support policies that redistribute income to reduce income inequality. But at what cost?

The Price of  Income Equality

Could we really make people more equal in terms of the wealth or income they hold? One way would be to collect all the income of everyone and distribute it evenly over the entire population. Would this solve the problem? The answer is a resounding “no,” and the reason for this goes back to Genesis 1:27. God created us distinctly and uniquely in his image.

The implications of this are that even if we possess the same amount of income, we will all do different things with that income because we have different insights, gifts, and attitudes toward risk and preferences.

Some of us might take that money and hide it under a mattress. Some of us might put it in savings. Some of us might start a business. We would all have different rates of return on the investments we would make with that money.

This is what conversations about income inequality ignore. There is no way to make everyone equal, because we are intrinsically different.

There is a great story from a most unlikely source that helps us understand how far we would have to go to generate true equality. Kurt Vonnegut wrote a short story titled “Harrison Bergeron” that appears in his book Welcome to the Monkey House:

THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else. All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General….Hazel had a perfectly average intelligence, which meant she couldn’t think about anything except in short bursts. And George, while his intelligence was way above normal, had a little mental handicap radio in his ear. He was required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.”

This short story paints a picture of what life would be like if we were to truly be equal. No one could be smarter, prettier, or more savvy than anyone else. The only way to get such equality would be to strip each of us of the distinctness God gave us.

Concluding Thoughts

This is not to say that when people cheat, lie, and steal to gain income at the expense of others, we shouldn’t fight against that. We should.

But when trade brings us together and allows us to use our gifts and skills to serve each other, some income inequality is natural and good. The benefit of free markets is that they serve and provide opportunities for everyone, from rich to poor. The cost of equality then, is infinite.

How does the market setting help us to use our differences to serve the common good? Leave your comments here.

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