Three Cheers for Inequality

It’s springtime, and fairness is in the air. And we’re choking on it. Everywhere we turn, fairness. Wherever so-called microaggressions and cultural appropriation are condemned or when the University of California bans phrases like “land of opportunity,” it is done in the name of fairness. #LoveWins or #MeToo—fairness. Open borders—fairness. Like a thirsty man at sea trying to slake his thirst with salt water, the more they screech “fairness,” the less they know what fairness means. Actually, their brand of fairness has as much to do with true fairness as a fire has to do with a firefly. Be careful how you define words. While some may be using the same words, they may be saying totally opposite things. Beating up words is bad enough; but beating up reality is unforgiveable.

If we don’t get fairness right, no one will be treated fairly. For all the agitprop of the Left, this is the final result of their fitful rantings. Fairness in their lexicon is, very simply, unfair. Take “income inequality,” for instance. Some howl that it is unfair that 1 percent owns inordinately more than the 99 percent. As with many simplicities, this is designed only for simpletons. The reason why the so-called “rich” own so much is because they have worked so much. Whether the work be the heavy lifting of creativity, imagination, sheer intellectual firepower, or the long hours of physical exertion and sheer thrift—it is the reward of hard work. Calling that unfair is bizarre. And suspicious.

Lurking underneath the Left’s complaints is a fundamental odium toward the rich themselves. Scratch the surface of their moaning and one finds the odd principle that the reason why there are people who are poor is because there are some people who are rich. In their lopsided calculus, wealth is a zero sum game: when I gain something, you must lose something. Wealth is seen a finite commodity, so the only way I can enjoy greater wealth is by depriving you of yours. This construal turns the rich into thieves, and the poor into victims. The poor become truncated human beings, not so much underprivileged as handicapped. Not as good as you and me, the poor must be always cared for, like pets. Few bigotries carry the stench of this one. Fr. Schall punctured this mythology when he once wrote,

the reason the poor are poor is not because the rich are rich. The only way the poor can be helped on a massive scale is for them to learn from those who know how wealth is produced… We want most people, most of the time, to take care of themselves … if we took the wealth of the world and simply redistributed it equally, we would undermine economic incentives and capital concentration. What would happen is that all would be poorer because the growth dynamism for all would be undermined.

The Left’s debasement of the poor creates a static and rigid world bereft of the marvelous expansiveness that man’s nature guarantees. Our human nature consists of having a mind and being able to use it freely. Of course, fidelity to our nature will always entail sacrifice; for though we are blessed with freedom, nothing is ever free. This truth hurts the ears of most men. Thus de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America: “There exists also in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which reduces men to prefer equality in slavery to inequality with freedom.” How else to make sense of Wordsworth’s paean to the prospect of the French Revolution, “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/But to be young was very heaven.”

Inequality will always be the flip side of freedom. Einstein, Mozart, and Da Vinci had far more gifts than the rest of us. Where is the rage at such inequality? Patton, Churchill, and Aristotle enjoyed natural endowments towering over most of humanity. Where is the protest for just redress? You received an A in geometry, and your friend failed. Must you insist that fairness demand you receive the same grade? When put that plainly the problem comes into proper relief. Equality is not sameness, and fairness does not erase the sharp difference in the rewards attendant upon achievement. It demands them. Both students have an equal opportunity to learn but also an equal opportunity to fail. Freedom makes unequal outcomes possible because human beings are not the same in ability or motivation. Unequal outcomes are fair as long as there are no artificial impediments to achievement. Aristotle established the perfect principle in the Nicomachean Ethics, “The greatest inequality is to treat unequal things equally.” Fr. Schall again caps this all very nicely,

That some will always be richer than others is not itself a sign that anything is wrong with the world… Rich men, poor men, men in the middle, all [have] their places. All can save their souls. Each could be concerned with one another, each could fail… When Christ talked about the lilies of the field. He told us to see how they grow. He noted that the Heavenly Father took care of them as lilies, with the implication that He would take care of us as men, that is after the fashion of men. The fashion of men is to learn to do things, to know what produces wealth, and what does not, and to learn what is good for us, and what is not. The corruption of our culture is not in its wealth but in some of its principles.

Notice that we are not trespassing upon the foundational truth that “all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” That is the sterling cornerstone of Catholic anthropology, proceeding from the dogmatic tenet that all men are made “imago et similitudo Dei.” But while all men are to be treated equally, justice demands that their actions not be treated equally. Otherwise we have the current predicament of Western culture. Instead of America the Beautiful, we are Alice in Wonderland.

Our culture must return to the truth of things. Until that happens, those treated unfairly will never know fairness, and those suffering inequality will never enjoy authentic equality. Above all, the most precious lesson is that man’s crown is his ability to grasp truth, and act upon it with his glorious freedom. From that there will come a world filled with wild inequalities. I guess fairness has its price.

Fr. John A. Perricone


Fr. John A. Perricone, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy at Iona College in New Rochelle, New York. His articles have appeared in St. John’s Law Review, The Latin Mass, New Oxford Review and The Journal of Catholic Legal Studies.