A Tale of Two Inequalities
Posted on February 12, 2014
If one sentence summarized Pres. Barack Obama’s theme in his 2014 State of the Union address, it is “Inequality has deepened.” He stated:
Today, after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better. But average wages have barely budged.
But if you think Pres. Obama is against inequality, think again. There’s one kind of inequality the president is positively giddy about. Because this inequality is a staple of the liberal vision, we often hear little about it. Certainly, liberals don’t trumpet this vision of inequality, at least not by name. (What liberal wants to chant, “We need more inequality!”)
Inequality of processes is critical to the liberal program. Conservatives, on the other hand, are willing to tolerate inequality of results, as long as there is equality of processes. It’s important to understand the difference.
Conservatives believe that in the rules for society, there should be a level playing field. This was a foundational truth of Western culture, which was shaped by Christian truth. We read in the Bible:
There shall be one law for the native and for the stranger who sojourns among you.” (Ex. 12:49)
You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous. (Dt. 16:19)
In this social vision, you don’t get better justice just because you’re rich (or poor). You don’t get three years in prison for stealing a car if you’re black, and two years if you’re white. (This is why the civil rights legislation of the 1960s in the United States was so vital.) There may be no different laws for Jews and Muslims than there are for Christians and Hindus. We must all be treated equally under the law. This isn’t merely a Western idea. This is a biblical idea.
The New Equality (and Inequality)
Over the last 200 years or so, however, a new vision of equality has emerged. It was discovered that under the Christian vision, results were far from equal. If everyone is treated equally under the law, some people come out better than other people. For example, some people might get better jobs and make more money. Some children might be able to attend better schools. Some people might be able to afford better health care. Equality under the law didn’t mean equal results for everybody.
This fact leads to an important insight: When the law treats everyone identically, but the results are unequal, this inequality must result from something other than law. The explanation for that discrepancy is simple. It is the differences between humans themselves. Different people have different abilities. They have different work habits. They have different spending and saving habits. They have different virtues and vices. Whether these differences are innate or acquired is beside the point. The point is that people are different from one another, and if the law treats them all the same, those differences will show up in what they can get (or not get) in a society. If the law treats everyone equally, this can only mean that equality before the law leads to unequal results.
Over time, therefore, liberals came to believe that equality of processes (equality under the law) isn’t what they really wanted it at all. What they really wanted was equality of results. They didn’t want everyone to be treated the same. They wanted everyone to have the same amount of things.
What Must Be Changed to Get Equal Results for Everybody
But this desire posed a big problem. How can you guarantee that everybody gets the same amount of things if everyone is treated equally under the law? The answer is that you can’t. As a result, it was necessary for liberals to destroy the equality of processes to guarantee equality of results. Liberals had to rig the law in order to guarantee that some people got as much as other people.
The most blatant example of Pres. Obama’s commitment to this inequality is his so-called Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”). If everyone is treated equally before the law, some people will be able to afford better medical insurance than others, and a comparatively few people might not be able to afford it at all. This is an inequality of results that liberals simply cannot abide. Therefore, they must introduce inequality of processes to guarantee that everyone has medical insurance. This means forcing young, healthy Americans to pay the medical costs of older, less healthy Americans. (In other contexts, this arrangement might be called stealing, but it seems impolite to refer to government theft as stealing.)
It’s important to recognize that the equality of processes and equality of results are mutually exclusive. Or, at least, the more that one increases, the more the other must decrease. The more you demand that results are equal, the more you must make laws unequal. And the more you demand that laws treat everyone equally, the more you will get unequal results.
Winners and Losers
Liberals believe that although people are very different from one another, they’re often entitled to the same things. In order to get those same things, liberals must rig the law to harm some people and benefit others. This is why in the Affordable Care Act, we heard about winners and losers. The winners are people that get subsidized insurance by getting other people’s money. The losers are people who lose money by having to subsidize other people’s insurance.
Of course, conservatives believe in winners and losers too. If everybody is treated the same before the law (equality of processes), some people get more, perhaps a lot more, than others. But this isn’t because the law is unequal. It’s because people are unequal. There are winners and losers because people are winners and losers, not because the law picks winners and losers.
In short, conservatives are willing to recognize the obvious inequalities among humans. They abhor the practice of social elites rigging the law in order to accomplish an equality that makes the elites feel smug, superior and self-satisfied.
It’s not that conservatives relish inequality of results. Most conservatives I know wish that everybody could afford quality health insurance. But we are simply not willing to rig the law in order to get what we wish. Equality before the law is more important than our desires for equality of results.
So when Pres. Obama says, “Inequality has deepened,” conservatives are no less disturbed than he is.
But we are disturbed at a very different kind of inequality.
All equalities (and inequalities) are not created equal.