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.


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  • Bryan Cross

    Anthony,

    You move from the narrator’s statement “we don’t have to go back to socialism to find something that is fair for hard working Americans,” to the following conclusion, “There you have it friends: envy.” In drawing this conclusion, you seemingly assume that the only reason someone could believe such disproportionate wealth distribution is unfair, is envy. But that assumption is unjustified, and in my opinion uncharitable, because there is an alternative and more charitable reason someone could believe that such disproportionate wealth distribution is unfair, namely, by believing that such wealth distribution is unjust with respect to our mutual obligations to one another as
    fellow human beings and members of a shared society.

    For example, in Mater et Magistra, Pope John XXIII wrote, “Nevertheless, in some of these lands the enormous wealth, the unbridled luxury, of the privileged few stands in violent, offensive contrast to the utter poverty of the vast majority.” (69) The offense to which he refers is not one of envy, but of injustice. When in that same document he says, “every effort should be made that, at least in the future, only an equitable share of the fruits of production accumulate in the hands of the wealthy, and a sufficient and ample portion go to the workingmen” (77), he is speaking about justice, not envy. And the Second Vatican Council said the following:

    “Therefore, although rightful differences exist between men, the equal dignity of persons demands that a more humane and just condition of life be brought about. For excessive economic and social differences between the members of the one human family or population groups cause scandal, and militate against social justice, equity, the dignity of the human person, as well as social and international peace.” (Gaudium et Spes, 29)

    “Militates against social justice” does not mean merely “stirs up the vice of envy.” It is the claim that such excessive wealth differences are contrary to the requirements of social justice. You might believe that there is no such thing as “excessive economic differences between members of the one human family,” and that there is no form of wealth distribution that is contrary to social justice. But surely you should at least recognize that there are others who *do* believe such things, and therefore that from a claim of unfair wealth distribution it does not follow that the speaker is motivated by envy or that his argument is built on the vice of envy as a premise. Such a conclusion presupposes precisely the point in question, namely, that there is no such a thing as unjust wealth distribution.

    In the peace of Christ,

    - Bryan

    • Anthony Bradley

      No Bryan, you are wrong. I drew that conclusion about envy because of this: ” 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 conflation of income and wealth is the problem. You missed the point but I see you haven’t given up on your “find-a-reason to disagree with Bradley project.”

      • Bryan Cross

        Anthony,

        The point of the quotations I cited from the social
        encyclicals does not hang on the distinction between income and wealth.
        Just as envy does not need to be the reason for claiming that wealth
        distribution is unjust, so envy does not need to be the reason for
        claiming that income disparity is unjust.

        My disagreement with
        you here (and elsewhere) is not in the least personal; it is merely
        because on these particular points I believe you are mistaken, and could
        possibly be benefited by knowing why.

        In the peace of Christ,

        - Bryan

    • RogerMcKinney

      Envy is correct. Why would anyone care that the CEO earns 380 times another employee except envy?

      And your definition of social justice codifies envy as good. Justice as defined in the Bible and used throughout most of Western history has to do with people getting what they deserve. If someone earns 380 times the wages of another, the question is did they steal it or did they work for it? If they worked for it and it was freely given to them without coercion, then according to Church writing that salary is just.

      Now if you can prove that they achieved that salary through fraud, theft or coercion, you might have a point.

      • Bryan Cross

        Roger,

        By claiming that the only possible reason behind a claim of unfair income disparity is envy, your comment presupposes that there is no such thing as distributive justice. You imply that throughout Western history there was no concept of distributive justice, only commutative justice, and no grasp of the mean in distributive justice in terms of due proportion. But that’s simply not the case, as can be seen in Aristotle and St. Thomas, for example. Our understanding of distributive justice has deepened, especially as informed by our understanding of the dignity of the human person, and the common good, but there has always been some grasp of distributive justice. Even if you think that there is no such thing as distributive justice, the fact is that there are people who *do* believe there is such a thing, and therefore one cannot justifiably infer from every claim of unfair income disparity that the claim is due to envy. The notion that distributive justice “codifies envy” simply begs the question, i.e. presupposes precisely what is in question. Moreover, your claim would entail that the statements in the Catholic documents I cited above are rooted not in justice, but in envy. I’m quite sure that’s not the Acton Institute’s official position on these documents.

        In the peace of Christ,

        - Bryan

        • RogerMcKinney

          As I wrote above, distributive justice is an oxymoron. When people freely give of their goods to others, that is not justice; it’s charity. To be justice would require that the poor have a right to the property of others. They don’t. Of course, charity reflects the image of God and is a spiritual discipline, but it has nothing at all to do with justice.

          Distributive justice codifies envy. To say that distributive justice is one’s motive is the same thing as saying envy is the motive.

          • Bryan Cross

            Roger,

            Again, that begs the question, i.e. presupposes precisely what is in question. Moreover, Jordan’s article cited by Anthony draws significantly from St. Thomas to explicate different forms of envy. So it would be ad hoc special pleading to dismiss as an oxymoron a concept defended by the very same person to whom one appeals as an authority in making one’s case.

            In the peace of Christ,

            - Bryan

          • RogerMcKinney

            It’s not circular reasoning if Jordan doesn’t agree with everything St Thomas wrote, though I can’t speak for him.

            My point is that there is no such thing as “distributive justice” because the distribution is unjust unless the person doing the distributing is distribution his own wealth freely. No one has a right to the property of another person. I think the Bible makes that very clear.

          • http://www.jordanballor.com/ Jordan Ballor

            I don’t agree with everything St. Thomas wrote, but neither do I think that distributive justice is a vacuous concept.

      • Jim Price

        A person cannot work 380 times harder or more efficient than someone else; it is the system, not the person that throws things out of kilter. In 1957, Elvis Presley grossed 100 million but then he was taxed 90%, which only left him 10 million or so to live on. A return to the tax rates of the fifties might be a good way to equal things out.

        • RogerMcKinney

          Why is how hard someone works or how efficient they are the only criteria? Limited in that way, I would have to agree with you.

          But as the scholars of Salamanca demonstrated, value has little to do with work or efficiency. Anyone can work very hard and be very efficient at producing something no one wants, so it has no value. A drunk can stumble upon a diamond in a river bed and still have something of value.

          Value is subjective. If the CEO’s who get 380 times the salaries of other workers did not steal, coerce or defraud the board of directors who gave him that salary then that salary reflects how much the board values his services. It has nothing to do with how hard he works or how efficient he is.

          BTW, the scholars of Salamanca improved a great deal on the economics of St Thomas.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/kirk.rainer Kirk Rainer

    Celebrate diversity or not, the trends that represent growing gaps in income give reason to pause; for as the gap continues, on trend, so too does the hope that hard work is the path to progress and not to serfdom .

    • RogerMcKinney

      The main causes of the inequality are 1) the inflationary policies of the Fed, which grows inequality from the top and 2) immigration and the explosion of single mother homes, which grows inequality from the bottom.

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  • http://twitter.com/StevenAMitchell Steven Mitchell

    Dr. Bradley, I think it ultimately comes down to the 21st-century West buying into the proposition that life is all about self-actualization: an existential twist on classical liberalism. The reason why diversity is embraced is because it represents people self-actualizing, being free from what are perceived to be oppressive restraints of traditional society. Anthony Kennedy stated it rather concisely when he wrote, ‘At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.’

    And so the modern liberal experiment is to disentangle individuals from such constraints, whether they be governmental, sociological, or from other sources. Though wealth itself is not a direct source of oppression, wealth disparity, so the thought goes, does put people on unequal footing in their pursuit of self-actualization.

    The CEO who makes ’380 times’ as much as one of his employees is much more able to ‘define [his] own concept of existence’ than said employee. Not only is he more free from certain pressures of personal finance in affording ‘the bare necessities’, but he also has greater access to the luxuries which might aid him in his hypothetical pursuit. To rub salt in the wound, the CEO does not earn ’380 times’ more than his employee for any reasons which the value system of contemporary liberalism would recognize: he is not defining his own concept of existence any better than the starving artist.

    And this helps to explain why even those who are financially comfortable (and thus have little reason for envy) vicariously cry out for ‘wealth equality’. From the perspective on the non-liberal, the root problem is their high esteem for the raison d’être of contemporary liberalism: unrestrained self-definition of one’s existence.

    • RogerMcKinney

      I don’t think so. The Church scholars of Salamanca determined that neither work nor intrinsic value determine prices, but the subjective values of the participants in the transaction, and that includes wages. So it doesn’t matter how hard the CEO’s work; the board values their labor 380 times that of other employees and that is a just wage. That has been the principle of just prices and wages in the classical liberal West since the 16th century.

      Productivity and subjective value determine wages for the most part. That is justices. Anyone who wants more than they get under those circumstances is guilty of covetousness. They want what someone else has. Covetousness is an aspect of envy.

      Charity is a duty of the Godly, but the poor have no right to it, otherwise charity would not be a virtue; it would simply be the law. Charity demonstrates ones love for God and alignment with his values.

    • RogerMcKinney

      I don’t think so. The Church scholars of Salamanca determined that neither work nor intrinsic value determine prices, but the subjective values of the participants in the transaction, and that includes wages. So it doesn’t matter how hard the CEO’s work; the board values their labor 380 times that of other employees and that is a just wage. That has been the principle of just prices and wages in the classical liberal West since the 16th century.

      Productivity and subjective value determine wages for the most part. That is justices. Anyone who wants more than they get under those circumstances is guilty of covetousness. They want what someone else has. Covetousness is an aspect of envy.

      Charity is a duty of the Godly, but the poor have no right to it, otherwise charity would not be a virtue; it would simply be the law. Charity demonstrates ones love for God and alignment with his values.

      • http://twitter.com/StevenAMitchell Steven Mitchell

        But Roger, that’s precisely the point: contemporary liberalism disagrees fundamentally with that assessment of the market and its implicit justice. Repeating dogma is either/both preaching to the choir or unconvincing. Such faith in market forces does nor comport with the values of contemporary liberalism, nor does its results always. (And a bare appeal to Salamanca is a non-starter. I’m both Christian and conservative, and I find it nearly irrelevant. What persuasive power do you think it will have to a contemporary liberal? Liberalism isn’t exactly anti-revolutionary in nature…)

        Contemporary liberalism believes that the market can and does produce unjust results — often and sometimes gross. Contemporary liberalism may not be right on that point, but it means that you cannot finger envy as the primary factor, when it really comes down to concepts of justice and what it looks like — and more fundamentally, concepts of life. Just as under a more commonly accepted idea of justice the one bringing suit in court is nor covetous of the defendant, but living out a pursuit of justice.

        • RogerMcKinney

          As I wrote to Bryan above, the liberal definition of justice codifies envy. Just redefining envy as justice doesn’t change the fact that it’s envy. If the definition of justice contradicts the Biblical definition and corresponds to envy, then it’s still envy. If it quacks and walks like a duck….

          Socialists (the correct name for liberals) live from redefining words so that they automatically win any argument. It’s their primary MO. It only fools the gullible.

        • RogerMcKinney

          As I wrote to Bryan above, the liberal definition of justice codifies envy. Just redefining envy as justice doesn’t change the fact that it’s envy. If the definition of justice contradicts the Biblical definition and corresponds to envy, then it’s still envy. If it quacks and walks like a duck….

          Socialists (the correct name for liberals) live from redefining words so that they automatically win any argument. It’s their primary MO. It only fools the gullible.

  • OrionElectra

    Wealth envy is natural. Wealth resent is animalistic and unproductive for ALL. Don’t despise the wealthy, ASPIRE to be one of them! There are no rules or laws or moral issues with one person being more wealthy than another. In fact, when EVERYONE has the same wealth (as the liberals try to achieve), the economy will be quite stagnant.