I have long been suspicious of politicians who talk about equality. With increasing irritability, I find myself inevitably asking what kind of equality they are talking about. As I become increasingly aware of my own gifts and limitations, it is obvious that I need other people with different gifts and limitations in order to so much as survive. And our need for diversity applies to all living organisms.
On a slightly more limited level, I am highly suspicious of political and economic policies that seem to suggest that we should all have more or less equal wealth and opportunities. We don’t all have the same hopes, the same things don’t make us happy, our abilities benefit from different kinds of opportunities and challenges. We don’t want a society in which everybody is the same, and we can’t create a “fair society” in which nobody has a need to strive or struggle or compete. Nor can we create a society where corruption or greed or self-serving laziness are eliminated.
But today I hit the limit of my inequality tolerance.
Oxfam has just released figures preceding the annual meeting of the world’s financial leaders in Davos, Switzerland that even I find unconscionable. In 2014, 48% of the world’s wealth was help by a mere 1% of the world’s population. By 2016, it is set to exceed more than 50%.
Not only is it unconscionable. This huge disparity is extremely dangerous. Perhaps even more dangerous to the survival of humanity than extreme climate change.
Why? Because it is this kind of inequality that leads to the kind of vicious, often religiously based, intolerance we see sweeping across the world’s continents today. It isn’t being poor that makes people angry. It’s being trapped. It’s having no way out of seeing one’s children die of starvation, of living in hovels surrounded by sewage ditch streets, of having no access to education, or facing job opportunities that consist of scrounging through garbage dumps or working the streets through prostitution.
Today the hot spots of Islamic militants are where the poverty is. In countries where the wealth disparity is not so immovable, Islamism tends to be far more tolerant. Even in America, the land of opportunity, the land where the boy born in a log cabin can become president, the dream is beginning to lose its potential. It’s beginning to look as if hard work does not necessarily dig oneself and one’s children out of poverty. The top 1% are taking all the cream, even protected from higher taxes, while the working man and woman remain stuck in a rut that hard work, ambition, and even talent often cannot conquer. And we see the lines of intolerance hardening. Immigrants are no longer welcome by many, even those qualified to be of great benefit to America. The tax system is based on a “top-down” system that says the rich should be allowed to keep the money they earn because it will “trickle down” to the masses. Except it doesn’t.
What is the solution?
One’s first impulse, as even Pope Francis illustrated, is to punch back, not merely with a punch in the face but with economic sanctions, as well as drones, guns and bombs. I can’t claim to be a complete pacifist – I suspect that some physical force is often called for. But if the underlying economic strangle holds are not addressed, military might will eventually fail.
There are changes that can – must – be made in the economic systems which govern. Obviously, fairer tax systems world-wide, less corruption, more job opportunities and education. There are changes that must occur in some religious teachings, and cultural values as well. But no system is fool-proof. We will always have people who game the system. There are others who manage to make disproportionate amounts of money through creativity and good luck even when that has not been their original motivation. We don’t want to revert to those systems that pursue a fairer system at the cost of repressing creativity and originality.
In our global and rapidly changing world, our economic and social systems need constant adjustments.
I think it is only a sense of justice and community, that basic altruism and love of neighbor that can ultimately insure an economic and social system in which all of us can thrive and benefit from our mutual gifts.