Acton Institute Powerblog

They Don’t Deserve It!: The Idolatry of Wealth Inequality

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MSNBC.com reports on a video about wealth inequality that has now gone viral, with over 2.2 million views in just a few months.

A video made shortly after the 2012 election showing how much greater the disparity actually is, has gone viral in the last few days thanks to links from websites including Reddit and Mashable. First, it lays out what people see as ideal, a system in which wealthy Americans get a lot more but poor Americans are slightly above the poverty line. Reality perhaps has the most shock value. As the narrator lays out in the video (uploaded by an unaffiliated, anonymous YouTube user), the top 1% has 40% of all the nation’s wealth, the bottom 80% only has 7% of it.

If you watch the video, you’ll be left with many questions. Among them are the following:

  • What is morally wrong with wealth inequality?
  • Why must wealth be distributed?
  • Whose job is it to distribute the wealth?
  • What makes the distribution of wealth “fair”?
  • How do we measure “fairness” with respect to how people acquire their wealth?
  • What is the “ideal” distribution of America’s wealth and who has the authority to determine what that distribution should be and how should it be enforced?

There are many more questions to pose, for sure.

Near the end of the video the narrator commits a fatal error, which ultimately reveals a possible motive behind the production, when he asks why CEOs should earn a salary “380 times” more than their average employee. The narrator then says, “we don’t have to go back to socialism to find something that is fair for hard working Americans.” There you have it friends: envy. The idea that somehow those who are wealthy are undeserving of their wealth leaps out at the end of the video. There is a deep seated envy epidemic in this country and we see it in videos like this.

The ultimate critique of current state of American wealth inequality seems to be that everyone who “works hard” should eventually amass an acceptable level of wealth. To help us make sense of this envy problem I would highly recommend everyone in America read, “The Moral Challenges of Economic Equality and Diversity” by Jordan Ballor. Ballor reminds us that,

We live in a culture today that celebrates diversity of all kinds, even those that clearly transcend the moral limits of God’s created order. And yet economic diversity, which is another way of speaking of the division of labor and specialization, has not yet received its due recognition. We praise diversity of all kinds; why not economic diversity? The answer is, in part at least, the reality of envy.

And herein lies the question: If America is a place that praises and celebrates diversity, why is that we cannot celebrate the fact that one hard working person has more wealth in the long-run than another hard working person? It may have to do with the moral degradation of an American society that has resulted in a political climate of class warfare, and that has turned wealth equality into an idol.

Anthony Bradley Anthony Bradley, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Theology and Ethics in the Public Service Program at The King's College in New York City and serves as a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute. Dr. Bradley lectures at colleges, universities, business organizations, conferences, and churches throughout the U.S. and abroad. His books include: Liberating Black Theology: The Bible and the Black Experience in America (2010),  Black and Tired: Essays on Race, Politics, Culture, and International Development (2011),  The Political Economy of Liberation: Thomas Sowell and James Cone of the Black Experience (2012), Keep Your Head Up: America's New Black Christian Leaders, Social Consciousness, and the Cosby Conversation (2012), Aliens in the Promised Land:  Why Minority Leadership Is Overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions (forthcoming, 2013). Dr. Bradley's writings on religious and cultural issues have been published in a variety of journals, including: the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Detroit News, and World Magazine. Dr. Bradley is called upon by members of the broadcast media for comment on current issues and has appeared C-SPAN, NPR, CNN/Headline News, and Fox News, among others. He studies and writes on issues of race in America, hip hop, youth culture, issues among African Americans, the American family, welfare, education, and modern slavery. From 2005-2009, Dr. Bradley was Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO where he also directed the Francis A. Schaeffer Institute.   Dr. Bradley holds Bachelor of Science in biological sciences from Clemson University, a Master of Divinity from Covenant Theological Seminary, and a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Westminster Theological Seminary.  Dr. Bradley also holds an M.A. in Ethics and Society at Fordham University.

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