Equality has a fuzzy comfortable feeling, especially if you’re an American like me. We have a constitution that says we are all entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and even though it took a century and a half and a civil war to recognize even in law that WE did not mean only white men, and even though racism still rears its nasty head, we nonetheless all cross our hearts to the concept of equality.
But what does it mean? What does equal mean? In hundreds of important ways we are obviously not equal. We differ in sensory sensitivity, in physical strength and coordination, in talent, in looks, in mathematical, musical, spatial, verbal, and social abilities to name just a few. And we can only be grateful that this is true. We would all be indescribably poorer if we were all the same.
And that’s the problem with the word “equality.” Equal does not mean identical. It does not mean we all have the same needs, the same abilities, or the same desires or opportunities.
And so, with all due respect for Pope Francis who in so many ways is a breath of fresh air, I think to talk about the injustice of economic inequality is asking for trouble. Of course it is absurd for Limbaugh to say Francis is advocating Marxism. If nothing else, it shows how little Limbaugh knows about Marxism.
And yes, there are some aspects of economic inequality which are hugely unjust and which we must try to reduce. When people do not have the basic needs of food and clothing and shelter, when they are denied education for which they have the ability, when they are sick and denied medical support, when they cannot live even with basic dignity, how can we justify this if we can prevent it?
And that is part of the problem. How can we prevent the kind of inequality which denies whole groups of society the basic necessities of life, or the right to education? The last century is littered with systems that have tried and failed. The sources of injustice in society are not simple to eliminate. India is dealing with the effects of a caste system, Britain a class system, ethnic and tribal differences in Latin America and Africa are both overlaid by waves of colonialism. American today is dealing with the 2%, whose influence is destroying the hopes of the middle classes that if they work hard enough, they can build a better life and become more prosperous.
But achieving justice does not lie in economic equality. Nor will it bring happiness or fulfillment. To preach that it does is to walk down the road of envy and resentment. Having as much money as everybody else is not the road to happiness.
I think we need two things which are often confused with economic equality. The first is opportunity. Not every job should pay equally. But every adult should be able to do work which enables him or her to survive with dignity and to support those who depend on them. This might sound like a simple principle, but it demands an educational system that enables young people to gain those skills which will benefit society. And it demands a functioning economy which provides jobs for society’s workers. Figuring out how to achieve this is not obvious. In fact, as the political disagreements demonstrate, we really don’t know for sure how to do it. My own sense is that we are in desperate need of gifted economists as much as politicians.
Yes, let us offer a helping hand to those in need. Let us worry about the poor. But in some sense giving is much easier than receiving. When our needs are greatest, it is often humiliating to receive. But it can be gratifying to give, one can feel quite superior as a giver in a way we can’t at the receiving end. So let us worry about giving people the opportunity to work, and not languish on benefits or unemployment insurance, or even to starve and live in degrading penury.
The second thing we need beside opportunity is an appreciation of the vast richness for human society of our diversity. Let us be grateful that people can achieve things we cannot, that others have talents and abilities we do not have. We are all in this together. We need each other. We need those special gifts of others in order for our own lives to be enriched. We need to learn to delight in our differences, not resent them, or try to insist that our own differences somehow make us superior.
The great injustices of life are not inequality across the board. We need inequality.
But we all need love and respect and dignity. That is how we are equal.
We all need to give and we need to receive. We do not need to be all the same.