The Materialist Myth

The chapter titled “If I Become Rich, Won’t Someone Else Become Poor?” in Money, Greed, and God by Jay W. Richards is one everybody should read. Perhaps we could then destroy the myth that wealth is not created, but simply transferred. The following excerpt is relatively long, but it spells it out well.

After mentioning the parable of talents from the Gospel of Matthew, Richards continues:

Or think of another parable, of a landowner who goes out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. The landowner agrees to pay the going rate—a denarius—to the first workers he hires in the morning. But he ends up hiring more workers at nine o’clock, then again at noon and three o’clock. He even hires a few stragglers at five o’clock. At the end of the day, the landowner pays all the workers the same amount. The ones who work only one hour get the same as the workers who labor all day. Ah-hah! Everyone is treated equally, right? But the early birds in the parable don’t see it that way. When they get wind of this, they grumble that they didn’t get more. But the landowner rebuffs one of them: “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?” (Matt. 20:13–15).

Of course, this parable isn’t primarily an economic lesson. Jesus begins the parable by saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like …” He’s illustrating a mystery about the kingdom of God: when it comes in its fullness, “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” But that doesn’t make the parable any less relevant to our question. The landowner represents God, so clearly Jesus sees his actions as just. If the landowner had not paid the first workers what he promised, he would have been guilty of theft. That’s injustice. As it is, the landowner keeps his promises. He just pays each a different rate per hour. But so what? That’s his choice to make. Instead of being pleased for receiving what they were promised, the early risers envy the others for what they have received. We all tend to do that—to link inequality of outcome or opportunity with injustice. But they’re not the same thing.

When Jim Wallis announces that God hates inequality, he’s not quoting the Bible. The Bible doesn’t say that anywhere. Jesus tells his inner circle of followers that they will sit on twelve thrones (Matt. 19:28). He speaks of the least now being the greatest in the kingdom of God. He tells his disciples that those who are humble like children will be greatest in the kingdom of God (Matt. 18:4). If absolute equality doesn’t apply to God’s kingdom—the very standard of justice—why do we think it should apply to human society? If God can be just without sharing his blessings equally, might the same be true of a society?

Ron Sider agrees that we shouldn’t try to make everyone’s income equal. Still, he argues that extreme disparities in wealth are dangerous … to democracy. Wealth is power, after all, and as Lord Acton famously observed, power tends to corrupt, because all human beings are fallen. “Concentrated wealth,” Sider argues, “equals concentrated power.” To avoid concentrated power, the American founders distributed the powers in the federal government among the congress, the president, and the courts. Sider argues that the same insight that led the founders to separate political power should lead us to separate economic power by preventing wealth from getting concentrated in the hands of the few. Otherwise, the wealthy will wield far too much power over the political process.

This sounds plausible, but think about it. How do you prevent people from acquiring vast wealth? Government could work to keep everyone poor. Governments can’t do everything, but history clearly shows that governments are more than capable of creating widespread poverty. But no sane person would recommend this policy. What Sider and others advise instead is that the government tax the wealthy disproportionately to prevent them from getting too rich, and then redistribute that wealth to poorer members of society.

Normally, it’s unjust to treat citizens differently based on their income, let alone to take one person’s property and give it to others. Moreover, we already have a progressive income tax. In 2004, the top 1 percent of income earners had a 19 percent share of the total income but paid 36.89 percent of the income taxes, and the top 50 percent of income earners paid 96.7 percent of the income taxes. But let’s set these points aside. Remember, Sider argues that we should “redistribute” to prevent power from getting too concentrated in the hands of the few. To do that, he recommends that the government, which has the unique coercive power to make and enforce the laws, should confiscate the legal wealth of some citizens and give it to others. Sider’s remedy for preventing a concentration of power among citizens is to pit the interests of some citizens against others, and to concentrate more power in the state. But the federal government’s budget is much larger than the net worth of even the wealthiest Americans, and its power far more vast. So if we’re concerned about concentrated power, why on earth would we want to hand more power over to the most powerful entity in human history, the U.S. government? That doesn’t make any sense. The cure is worse than the disease.

Policies like those Sider recommends led Scottish statesman Alexander Fraser Tyler (1742–1813) to conclude that “a democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government.” Instead, he argued:

It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largess from the public treasury. From that time on the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury, with results that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship.

… Of course, Sider is right that the wealthy tend to wield greater influence in politics than those of more modest means; but in open societies like the United States, the “wealthy” aren’t a uniform voting block. They’re individuals who disagree on pretty much everything, especially politics. … Their power is checked by the simple fact that they don’t all think alike. …

Hand wringing about gaps and inequality does little more than encourage perverse schemes like those favored by Wallis and Sider, where state attempts to play the role of unerring distributor of wealth. No such government institution exists, and wherever it has taken up the task with great zeal, it has not eliminated poverty but spread it like a virus. …

We rightly see poverty as a problem, just as disease is a problem. But the problem isn’t that some people are rich and some are poor, any more than the problem of disease is that some people are healthy. The problem is quite simply that some are poor. If we want to bask in the wasteful heat of self-righteous moral indignation, then by all means, let’s keep blathering on about income gaps. But if we really want to help the poor, we need to get our eyes off decoys and focus on the real problem—poverty—and its only known solution: creating wealth.

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