You’re part of this world, aren’t you? A tree-herder should know better!
Last week I had the pleasure of participating in the First Kuyper Seminar, “Economics, Christianity & The Crisis: Towards a New Architectonic Critique,” held at the VU University Amsterdam. I gave a paper on “The Moral Challenges of Economic Equality and Diversity,” which focused on envy as a moral challenge particularly endemic to market economies: “Since envy arises out of inequality, envy and inequality go together. And since markets inevitably generate inequalities, therefore envy and markets go together.” This paper is part of a larger collaborative project on envy I’m working on with Victor V. Claar, which includes our co-authored paper, “Envy in the Market Economy: Sin, Fairness, and Spontaneous (Dis)Order.”
Another presentation at the conference by Henry Vyner-Brooks of the UK focused on the thought of “John Ruskin and the Economics of Inequality.” I was not previously very familiar with Ruskin’s thought, and Vyner-Brooks’ presentation brought forth a wealth of intriguing material from Ruskin. The Ruskin presentation was given on the first day of the conference, and it stimulated my thinking as I prepared to give my paper on the final session of the second and last day of the workshop.
One of Ruskin’s contentions regarding inequality had to do with the moral obligation of the wealthy to put their wealth to productive use. He made the analogy between plants that merely grow and expand their root system with plants that actually bear fruit, the difference between root and bulb, so to speak. This, I think, helped me clarify to some extent the difficulty in understanding precisely what “unrighteous” inequality, a reality affirmed by the vast majority of thinkers in the Christian tradition, consists in. I didn’t come up with any hard and fast rules or measures (e.g. the 99% vs. the 1%), but I did think of a dynamic from the Lord of the Rings that might be helpful.
The idle, unproductive, or “unrighteous” wealth could be seen as analogous to the initial lethargy of the Ents in The Two Towers. A recurring temptation for materially prosperous human beings is to think that they no longer need God and are not bound by moral obligations to others, particularly the poor. This reality is in part why John Calvin, when commenting on Isaiah 2:16, observed that “it most frequently happens that abundance leads to pride and cruelty,” and that “it is too frequent and common that riches are followed by luxury, effeminacy, and a superfluity of pleasures, which we commonly see in wealthy countries and commercial cities.”