Social Justice and the “Redistribution of Wealth”

Rev. Robert Sirico of the Acton Institute takes Washington Post columnist Anthony Stevens-Arroyo to task for a piece he wrote about Catholic Social Teaching. Stevens-Arroyo argues that “since the world economy has been so badly distorted by those seeking advantage of one class over the other, Catholic social justice demands a redistribution of wealth.”

Rev. Sirico disagrees:

[Stevens-Arroyo] betrays a strange split in thinking common to those on the religious left, who are quick to denounce the profit motive and commercialism. Yet, they seem to think that the key to happiness is giving people more stuff — by enlisting the coercive power of government. This perverse way of thinking holds that “social justice” demands that we take money from those who have earned it and give it to those who have less of it. That’s not social justice; that’s materialism.

A friend and colleague, Arthur Brooks, a social researcher who is now president of the American Enterprise Institute, has shown that what makes people truly happy is a system that “facilitates earned success among its citizens and does not create disincentives to achieve or squash ambition.” That’s the market economy.

The incredible growth of economies in places like China and India isn’t happening because wealth was being shifted around, but because wealth is being created.

What happens when wealth is “redistributed” is obvious now.

Brian Saint-Paul


Brian Saint-Paul was the editor and publisher of Crisis Magazine. He has a BA in Philosophy and an MA in Religious Studies from the Catholic University of America, in Washington. D.C. In addition to various positions in journalism and publishing, he has served as the associate director of a health research institute, a missionary, and a private school teacher. He lives with his wife in a historic Baltimore neighborhood, where he obsesses over Late Antiquity.

  • Addietewd

    Suppose that every evening, 10 men go out for beer and the bill for all ten comes to $100. If they paid their bill the way we pay our taxes, it would go something like this:

    The first four men (the poorest) would pay nothing.
    The fifth would pay $1.
    The sixth would pay $3.
    The seventh would pay $7.
    The eighth would pay $12.
    The ninth would pay $18.
    The tenth man (the richest) would pay $59.

    So, that’s what they decided to do. The 10 men drank in the bar every evening and were quite happy with the arrangement, until one day, the owner said “Since you are all such good customers, I’m going to reduce the cost of your daily beer by $20.” Drinks for the 10 men would now cost just $80.

    The group still wanted to pay their bill the way we pay our taxes. So the first four men were unaffected, they would still drink for free, but what about the other six men, the paying customers? How could they divide the $20 windfall so that everyone would get his fair share? They realized that $20 divided by six is $3.33, but if they subtracted that from everybody’s share, then the fifth man and the sixth man would each end up being paid to drink his beer.

    So, using the principle of our tax system, the bar owner suggested that it would be fair to reduce each man’s bill by a higher percentage based on how poor he was, and he proceeded to suggest the amounts that each should now pay.

    Therefore, the fifth man, like the first four, now paid nothing.
    The sixth now paid $2 instead of $3 (33% saving).
    The seventh now paid $5 instead of $7 (28% saving).
    The eighth now paid $9 instead of $12 (25% saving).
    The ninth now paid $14 instead of $18 (22% saving).
    The tenth now paid $49 instead of $59 (16% saving).

    Each of the six was better off than before, and now half of the men continued to drink for free. But, once outside the bar, the men began to compare their savings.

    “I only got a dollar out of the $20 saving,” declared the sixth man. He pointed to the tenth man, “But he got $10!”

    “Yeah, that’s right,” exclaimed the fifth man. “I only saved a buck too. It’s unfair, he got 10 times more benefit than me!”

    “That’s true!” shouted the seventh man. “Why should he get $10 back, when I got only $2? The wealthy always win!”

    “Wait a minute,” yelled the first four men in unison, “we didn’t get anything at all. This new tax system exploits the poor!”

    The nine men surrounded the tenth and beat him up.

    The next night the tenth man didn’t show up for drinks, so the nine sat down and had their beers without him. But when it came time to pay the bill, they discovered something important. They didn’t have enough money between all of them for even half of the bill!

    And that, boys and girls, journalists, labor unions and government officials, is how the tax system works. The people who pay the highest taxes will naturally get the most benefit from a tax reduction. Tax them too much, attack them for being wealthy, and they just may not show up anymore. In fact, they might start drinking overseas, where the atmosphere is somewhat friendlier.

  • Mark

    What the Popes Really Say About Socialism:

  • Bender

    Catholic social justice demands that it be done justly. Confiscation, seizure, and coercion are not justice.

    In fact, we already have redistribution of wealth without such government thuggery, it is called the free market.

    The free market provides the fairest and most just and most effective redistribution of wealth from “the rich” to others. When the rich voluntarily buy something or invest their money, they are giving their wealth to others who use it to produce jobs and job-creating businesses.

    Now, if government comes along and takes that money, or one is otherwise involuntarily required to hand over their wealth to the government, that money is not available for job creation — it kills jobs. That is hardly true social justice.

  • Cord Hamrick

    …as I keep on saying, it does matter whether a given branch or level of government…

    1. Actually has authority to do any redistributing, and,
    2. Could plausibly have any authority to do any redistributing.

    The American theory of the manner in which a government obtains legitimacy is that it does so “through the consent of the governed.” The American theory of the manner in which that government then receives authority to act is “through delegation, by the people, of the just authority which they already have by virtue of their intrinsic human dignity, which is granted them by their Creator.”

    I have nowhere seen this refuted on a Catholic or any other basis, so I assume it is correct.

    It also seems entirely clear to me that the kind of redistributive authority which left-liberals would require Congress to have in order to implement their desired forms of redistribution is not, in fact, granted to Congress in the United States Constitution. That power, if it exists at all, is reserved to the states or to the people (Amendment X).

    So Congress, if I am correct about this, may not in fact lawfully do what left-liberals want it to do; that it is already doing so is an unlawful arrogation of power. It is an offense against the virtue of justice (proper) and defenses of it by those who proffer anachronistic interpretations under the label of “a living Constitution” are offending against the virtue of justice through dishonesty.

    There is also a good argument to be made, which I also have not yet seen refuted, that individuals do not have, as a part of their own intrinsic human dignity, just authority to coerce others into giving to a third party for “charitable purposes” except possibly in emergency situations to save particular lives in danger.

    If this is true then of course those individuals, lacking that just authority, could not delegate that authority to their government. One cannot delegate what one does not have. If this is correct, then the people of the United States not only have not delegated redistributive authority of the kind envisioned by left-liberals to their government, but they could not plausibly ever do so.

    If the redistributing is to be done, propriety requires such issues to be addressed first. But I don’t think they can, certainly not both of them. The people have not granted Congress authority to do that kind of thing, and it’s not certain that, even if they were to pass an amendment granting it, that it would be morally lawful.

  • Jeannine

    Addietewd’s little fable, which made the rounds of the Internet some time ago, helped my daughter to see the injustice in redistribution schemes! Concrete terms reveal the injustice at the heart of such schemes.

  • Dennis JP

    Communism = social justice ! Notice that Russia, China & Cuba have no influx of Illegal Immigrants ! No one is going to force me to surrender what I have worked my entire life for, especially to placate those here illegally & those laggards entering the 5th & 6th generations of WELFARE Slavery. The proponents of the New World Order are behind this & they’re intent on destroying the USA from within as they could never do it otherwise. They have placed their puppet in the oval office & have infiltrated the Catholic Church with their billions through “Foundations”. They manipulate causes only to insure turmoil, confusion & hatred. For instance they funded phony Catholic groups such as, “Catholics United” & “Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good”. They used these, chaired by Pro-Abortion Catholics, to get the party of death in control of our Gov. Our cowardly prelates let all of this occur un-challanged. Lastly. If money is the root of all evil why does the Church constantly seek it ? It’s discouraging to see Bishops & Priests living in luxury while always looking for more. What happened to – carry no purse & preach the good word !

  • Micha Elyi

    Notice that Russia, China & Cuba have no influx of Illegal Immigrants !

    Dennis JP

    Maybe it’s because the Church doesn’t encourage illegals there?  smilies/cheesy.gif

    If money is the root of all evil…

    Don’t go Protestant on us and start throwing bits of your Bible away, Dennis JP! smilies/wink.gif It’s “Love of money is the root of all evil.” The Left appears to have that money-lust in abundance for leftists sure love money, other people’s money!

    If the Left isn’t coveting the lives of the most innocent, they’re coveting the goods of the already-born innocent. Why don’t Catholics get more training from the pulpit about what the Commandments require in such real-world cases? (Just asking.)

  • kjotvi

    @Bender “In fact, we already have redistribution of wealth without such government thuggery, it is called the free market. ”

    So what if we bring the free market into the parable?

    I suggest that the men get together for a game of poker, and then pay for the beers out of their nights winning (after all, the free market is basically a gamble, and like poker, success at it depends much on the ability to read the intent of others). Some people are naturally gifted and intuitive at reading people, and others are not, and this can (but not necessarily “will”) affect their success at the game.

    Does the concept of justice change if it turns out that one of the winners has been regularly stacking the deck in his favor? In any undertaking involving chance, winners will often be those who reduce their exposure to chance, occasionally to the point of going to extreme measures to remove it entirely (or more correctly, to replace a large chance of financial loss with what they see as a smaller chance of legal loss). At what point does manipulation of the game (or the markets) replace governmental thuggery with private thuggery?

    In the end accounting from my point of view, the free market is a test, and like so many tests, it tests only one thing: how well you do at this specific test. I am one of those for whom the intuitive manipulation necessary to win at poker, or to successfully navigate the free market are outside my abilities. Because of this I do not gamble, nor do I begrudge others their successes.

    In discussions of the free market the metaphor of predator versus prey is often invoked, but it is a poor metaphor as it supposes predatory intent upon all who succeed, which is surely not the case. On the other hand, one part of it that may be useful is the “Life/lunch Dichotomy”: the lioness may fail in nine out of ten hunts, but it doesn’t really matter, as all the lioness has lost from any one failure is her lunch. On the other hand if the antelope fails, its life is forfeit. I have the choice to bow out of the poker game, but I am not offered a realistic option to absent myself from the financial game without dire consequences.

    The argument “20% of the earners are forced to pay 60% of the taxes” sounds like a great injustice to those who risk their comfort, yet at the same time “those who earn 90% of the income pay only 60% of the taxes” sounds like a great injustice to those who have to live on a minuscule snare of that remaining 10% and still use it to cover the remaining 40% of the taxes.

    Again, at what point does manipulation of the markets replace governmental thuggery with private thuggery?