Economic Equality Is Neither Just Nor Fair

Michael Medved

5/13/2009 6:34:14 AM - Michael Medved

Liberals love to emphasize their deep commitment to “social justice” but their obsession with economic equality produces policies that count as neither just nor fair.

Only in a fantasy world would the reasonable, impartial and evenhanded distribution of society’s rewards ever result in roughly equivalent incomes.

If individuals got paid strictly according to their contributions to the economy then the outcome will be radical inequalities, every time. When the left insists on “closing the gap between rich and poor” they’re not pushing for justice but rather promoting unjust favoritism for the least productive and competitive members of society.

Consider an imaginary instance in which a homeowner hires a crew of workmen to paint the four walls of his perfectly square living room. The painters don’t get along at all during the job so they come to the householder and demand separate payment. If they each contributed equally to the finished product – if each the painters, for instance, covered one of the walls – then it makes sense for the guy who hired them to pay them equally.

But what if one member of the crew devoted three full days to the job, while the others spent less than a single day? Advocates for equality might insist that all painters receive identical payment, since they all spent time some time on the same project. But paying the workers the same fees when they worked vastly different schedules would produce unfair discrepancies in terms of their hourly wages.

And then there’s the even trickier situation that arises due to inevitable differences in levels of skill and productivity. What if three painters each clocked exactly the same number of hours on the job, but one of them managed to paint two whole walls, while the others completed only one wall each? To pay the participants equally in this situation would amount to a gross injustice –attaching far less value to the two walls painted by the one worker, than to the single walls painted by each of his colleagues.

Since even identical investments of time can bring sharply different consequences, justice and fairness demand very different rewards. Justice requires that contributors on different levels receive unequal payments. Equal rewards, on the other hand, demand unfair treatment to the most skillful and productive participants.

Liberals may argue that higher goals than fairness require equivalent rewards, even if individuals make very different contributions. They can make the case that “closing the gap between rich and poor” will bring about greater social harmony, since workers who are paid identically will feel less envy or resentment toward one another. According to this logic, “savage inequalities” (to use a favorite phrase of the redistributionist left) can lead to social instability, or even violent revolution. But that rationale breaks down if slackers receive the same money as pluggers—thereby providing even more obvious grounds for bitterness.

The left also preaches the need for compassion—urging special consideration for those who, through no fault of their own, can’t produce enough to fulfill their own needs. But asking for disproportionate rewards for the unfortunate argues for kindness or charity, not for justice. Forced compassion-- in the form of confiscatory taxes and bureaucratic initiatives-- crowds out the healthy human impulse to assist those in need. Generosity represents a marvelous human quality but when the generosity is enforced by weight of law it undermines other values – private property, hard work, pride and self-respect. Few of us feel virtuous because the government takes part of our weekly paychecks while the beneficiaries of official programs (like the idiotically ill-conceived “Food Stamps” bureaucracy) seldom feel grateful for the largesse they receive, or determined to end their dependence. The very idea of “entitlements” works against the old notion that public assistance should representative a temporary lift rather than a way of life.

The battle of ideas surrounding the radical elements of the president’s economic program to some extent amounts to a battle over language. Barack Obama and his followers describe their budgetary increases as “investments,” for instance, while Republicans see “wasteful spending.”

With the upcoming struggle over a new appointment to the Supreme Court, conservatives must never surrender the crucial word “justice.” The Obama agenda may pursue many things – greater regulation, a stronger social safety net, a leveling of the inequalities between the wealthy and the destitute, but it hardly amounts to a pursuit of fairness.

Leveling, after all, generally involves lowering peaks rather than lifting valleys. To some, the resulting equality may represent an end in itself, but in a world of hugely unequal talent, virtue and effort, that goal has nothing at all to do with justice.