The Pope Is Wrong: Inequality Is Not Unjust

A Harvard lecturer named Christopher Robichaud wrote a column for Bloomberg called “The Pope Is Right: Inequality Is Unjust”.  Well, he’s wrong, and I wanted to tell you why.

Robichaud was reacting to another column, written by another Harvard lecturer, Lant Pritchett, that made the obviously correct point that “Poverty matters; injustice matters. Mere inequality is beside the point.”

I say “obviously correct” because it is, in fact, obviously correct.  Which would be preferable: a world in which every single human made the equivalent of $1 a day,  or a world in which every single human made the equivalent of $1000 a day, except for one lucky guy who made $100,000?   Obviously, obviously, poverty matters; inequality doesn’t.

Robichaud doesn’t actually rebut this, he just changes the subject.  “Economic inequality causes injustice,” he claims, “even if it doesn’t constitute injustice.”

That’s an accusation that, if true, would be highly damning to a society that permitted inequality.  Consider AIDS: AIDS doesn’t actually kill anyone, it’s opportunistic infections, which AIDS makes you unable to fight off, that kill you.  Still, we regard AIDS as a deadly disease.  Similarly, if economic inequality inevitably causes injustice, we can regard it as unjust.

But does it?  Does economic inequality causes injustice?

Robichaud’s support for his claim is that rich people and rich companies get more attention from the government: “Formally, in the U.S., we are all political equals: Each of us has one vote and the same protections under the law.  But the rich can use their money to promote their views and their preferred candidates.”   To summarize, he says, “Economic power is inseparable from political power.”

I’d like to come up with a more decorous phrase that was equally accurate, but my vocabulary is inadequate to the task: all I can say about Robichaud’s position is, “That’s horse shit.”

It is.  Economic “power” (by which Robichaud simply means “wealth”) is not inseparable from political power, and everyone knows it.

Remember a few years back, when everyone, including Warren Buffett, was complaining that Warren Buffett paid the same marginal tax rate as his secretary?   For a few months, you couldn’t pick up a newsmagazine or go to a political website without seeing a picture of the affably grinning Buffett standing behind his equally taxed but less cheerful executive assistant.

I worry a little about that woman.  It must be embarrassing to be held up as an example of the deserving poor, especially while your six-figure salary is being bruited about.

But no one asked the obvious question: why does Buffett, with his billions of dollars, his platoons of CPAs and crack ninja-squads of lawyers, his “economic power”, pay any tax at all, let alone a whopping 20%?  Maybe he should, in some people’s minds, pay more but certainly he himself would prefer to pay much, much less.  If economic power is inseparable from political power, why is he willing to pay a single dime?

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the top 40% of wage earners in America pay 106% of the taxes!  The bottom 40% pay negative 9%: they actually receive more in tax credits than they pay in taxes.   All those rich people, paying all those taxes, they must be very dumb or very generous… or they don’t have more political power than other people.

What gets me the maddest is that Robichaud knows his argument is bogus.  Think about it: why is he bothering to make the argument at all?  Because he’d like the political process to change the economic situation; he wants tax law or financial regulation or something to be changed, so the rich have less and the poor will have more.  Of course, if he believed that economic power really is inseparable from political power, he would know that the rich, who presumably would like to remain rich, will never let that happen.

But he doesn’t really believe it.  He thinks rich people have more power than he’d like them to have, and he’s hoping to organize enough people on the other size to countervail that power,  but the very fact he thinks that’s remotely possible means nothing like “injustice” is going on.

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