Piketty Notes and Quotes, 5: Inequality Language Games

Here’s another post on Piketty that isn’t really about Piketty per se, but about the sorts of conversations one finds oneself in when talking about him.  Over the past week and a half, I have been struck by a curious tendency I have encountered in a number of Christians when the subject of inequality comes up.

“So are you saying inequality is a problem, inequality is bad?”

“Well, yeah, I do think that, at least beyond a certain point, it’s a problem.”

“So why is it bad?”

“Well, it tends to create all these negative consequences, you see: social unrest, unhealthy concentrations of political power, oppression, etc.”

“So the problem then isn’t inequality, but people being envious, or people being power-hungry and corrupt, or people being oppressive, right?”

“Well, yeah, but high inequality tends to create those problems.  What’s your point?”

“Ah, but see you’re admitting now that inequality is not bad in itself.  It’s people who are bad, and these sins are just as much sins whether or not I have the same as you or a million times as much as you.”

“Um . . . ok.  But my point is that inequality is still a problem for our society.”

“But you’ve just admitted that inequality in itself isn’t the problem.”

So what is going on in this sort of interchange?  Well it struck me that this sort of talking past each other stems in large part from the existence of two very different “language games,” in which the same words are being used, but with very different meanings and implied contexts.   One is the language of politics and the other is the language of personal morality.  Of course, politics is concerned with morality, but in a more oblique way than, say, pastoral counseling.  For the pastor in the counseling session, “there’s a problem here” means, “Someone is sinning,” or more precisely, usually “one or both of you in front of me is sinning.”  The pastor’s task is to name and diagnose the sinful actions or attitudes that are creating a breakdown in communication, damaging relationships, etc.  The politician, on the other hand, while he is certainly concerned with trying to create a morally just state of affairs, which sometimes means assigning moral blame and punishing accordingly, usually means something different when he says, “there’s a problem here.”  In the political context, this usually means, “here is a situation that has not turned out well; here is a situation that is harming a lot of people, and from which the body politic as a whole is suffering; here is a situation that is going to create more problems for our country down the road.”  Someone may have sinned in bringing about this situation; indeed, in a nation of millions of people, of course lots of people have sinned along the way.  But that isn’t really the point; the purpose is not to assign blame, but simply to diagnose a social ill.  This is very clear in Piketty, who is interested simply in showing that there is a looming socio-political problem of substantial proportions, not in assigning blame of any sort.  Indeed, the fundamental mechanism of inequality for him has little to do with exploitation of workers, manipulations of the legal system, or anything of that sort, but with the simple economic fact that r > g.  Even if the diagnosis is, “This is an unjust state of affairs,” that doesn’t necessarily mean that you could point to any one person who could be blamed for their unjust actions in bringing it about.  An unjust or poorly-ordered social configuration could mean that lots of in-themselves blameless decisions result in an unjust outcome.  This difference—between the pastor’s standpoint and the politician’s—is a pretty natural result of the different scales involved.  In the one-on-one context, it is both much easier to name the sin involved, and easier to be sure that whatever problem has emerged has something to do sins of the individuals involved.  When millions of people are involved, this is of course quite impossible.

We ought to be able to easily translate back and forth between the two contexts, but strangely, many Christians don’t.  In the case of inequality, when they hear “inequality is a problem” all they can hear is “these people causing inequality are sinning.”  To them, what they are hearing is a demonization of the wealthy, to which the only way they know how to respond is, “Well, if inequality is a problem, a moral problem, then the sin in question is that of the envious people who are getting upset by it.”  And when they hear of proposed remedies for inequality, all they hear is proposed “punishments” of the wealthy for their putative sins.  Now, this is somewhat understandable in light of the fact that many societies have at various times and places been tempted toward a wholesale demonization of the wealthy.  But to the sober political commentator, this is precisely another reason why we need to see that inequality is a problem—it tends to lead to situations of social unrest in which the wealthy are demonized and revolution ensues.  Within this kind of political discourse, then, the main purpose of discussing inequality is not to assign blame, but to discern dangers to the body politic and then prevent them.

This sort of talking past each other is of course not confined to issues of wealth and poverty.  One finds it on all sorts of political issues.  On abortion, many on the Christian Right can only think in terms of moral evil—the abortion problem is the aggregate evil of all the individual sinful decisions made by women and doctors—while many on the left (at least among the more moderate) prefer to discuss it in terms of a social problem, analyzing the circumstances that lead to abortion and how they might be prevented.  On immigration, the left focuses on the social and political dimensions of the problem—how bad it is both for immigrants, the communities they move into, and the government to exist in a legal vacuum, and how important it is to find ways of establishing orderly paths to citizenship.  Many on the Christian Right, on the other hand, cannot look past what they see as the individual moral evil of the fact that these immigrants are violating the law.  Even on something like the national debt (a matter I will be posting on shortly) or national healthcare, the first impulse of many Christian conservatives is to translate the discussion into the language of personal morality, as a sin of governmental “theft,” rather than to evaluate the concrete social, political, and economic problems at stake.

I was hoping to conclude this post by providing some rich insight into where this moralistic predisposition comes from.  But I don’t have one.  Is it the long legacy of pietism in American Protestantism, that has trained us to think in only these terms?  Is it the influence of more recent libertarianism, with its insistence that the only agents are individuals, and the only actions worthy of evaluation are individual choices?  Or is it mere laziness, an abandonment of the complex “on the one hand, on the other hand” that must characterize political deliberation in favor of a black-and-white assignation of blame?  I’m not sure.  Whatever the source of the problem, it is clear that Christian conservatives will have little of value to contribute to our nation’s political discussions, and will have a chronic bent toward polarization, until they learn to overcome this handicap.

6 thoughts on “Piketty Notes and Quotes, 5: Inequality Language Games

  1. Yes, to recognize inequality as potentially unjust is seen by some as itself sin & evil. But we see this clearly in some areas, like athletics, and make adjustments for the "inequality". The 112, 128, 132,148, 165lbs…boxer/wrestler is not expected to compete against the 220 pound heavyweight. Nor do women normally compete against men. They are not equal and it’d be unjust to expect them to compete.

    Political inequality is more problematic because we don’t like it that George Soro, Bill Gates, Oprah, Warren Buffett and Ted Turner can conspire together for tremendous social and political power (inequality?)…anymore than others like it when the Koch Brother do likewise — overlap all because of their tremendous economic power. So like in athletics, we must try to find a way to make it more just…less un-equal if possible without destroying profit, investment capital and a legitimate inequality.

    Economically, few would quarrel with George Harrison’s song ‘Taxman’ when the British govt took up to 95% of their earning:

    "Let me tell you how it will beThere’s one for you, nineteen for meCos I’m the taxman, yeah, I’m the taxman

    Should five per cent appear too smallBe thankful I don’t take it allCos I’m the taxman, yeah I’m the taxman

    If you drive a car, I’ll tax the streetIf you try to sit, I’ll tax your seatIf you get too cold I’ll tax the heatIf you take a walk, I’ll tax your feet

    Taxman!Cos I’m the taxman, yeah I’m the taxmanhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YtksJEj2Keg

    But as Brad laments above, some can’t seem to see the potential social problem of a 1,000/1 or even a million to one in the market. But the "degree" of such inequality does matter…as does a structure that seeks to address the seeming "injustice" of it. Nor is Scripture silent about the Rich man who is callous to the poor. There are a host of simple remedy…not easy that don’t involve govt taxation and redistribution…if we have ears to hear.

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  2. Brad Belschner

    I’m convinced this moralistic predisposition comes from a particular view regarding the mandate of government. They immediately begin talking about wicked injustice because that’s precisely what they believe the civil magistrate is supposed to deal with, and nothing more. These guys bear the SWORD after all. It’s not politicians’ job to "organize" society a certain way. It’s not their job to make sure "situations turn out well." The civil magistrate is ONLY supposed to deal with individual acts of injustice, nothing more and nothing less.

    Sometimes this is combined with a greater or lesser degree of fanaticism regarding the free market’s ability to organize society successfully, but I think that’s secondary, albeit integrally related. The heart of the matter is the mandate of government.

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  3. Brad Belschner

    Disclaimer: When you speak of these "conversations" with people you "have encountered", I assume you’re speaking about friends within our Reformed circles. That’s where my diagnosis applies the most. If you’re speaking about more normal neo-cons in the generic Christian right, then I don’t know if you would encounter the same type of opposition. (From my experience they would just yell "socialist!" and end the conversation pretty quickly.)

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    • Brad Littlejohn

      Generally, yes, and within those circles, it may be as simple as you say. That is what I was originally inclined to think. But more broadly, I’m not so sure. As I suggest toward the end of the post, it seems that the moralistic bias affects the Christian Right generally, and it is not my sense that the Christian Right generally has such a clearly-defined theological limit to the civil magistrate’s mandate. But my direct experience of "the Christian Right generally" is admittedly limited.But I wonder if it isn’t the other way around from what you’ve said. For many Christians, all political problems are immediately translated into the language of individual "sins." From this perspective, since it is clear that we don’t want to put the government in the business of trying to correct all sins, we need to find some basis for a strict "sins"/"crimes" distinction that will restrict the government’s corrective activity to the latter. This seems to be the way the inequality discussion goes: if you’re talking about inequality being a problem, you must be talking about something someone did wrong, and if that something is merely a sin, and not a crime, well then the government shouldn’t have anything to do with it.

      In any case, it seems to me that this reflexive moralism is someone independent of the question of government mandate. After all, to say, "Gosh, extreme inequality is a problem—a social, economic, and political ill" I don’t have to be proposing government intervention. I might think that no such intervention is desirable or likely to succeed, but that we ought at least to be made aware of the problem, so that we can take whatever non-governmental steps there are to deal with it. But one can’t even get this far in the conversation—even if one isn’t talking about the government at all, one runs into, "Wait, why is inequality bad? Who sinned here?"

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  4. Kent Will

    I think I agree with all the things you said, but it seems to me there’s also a contextual problem going on with many of the would-be economic critics. Radical egalitarian theory is a massive deal in America and has been for centuries. So if someone shows up on the scene talking about the evils of inequality, it’s not surprising that a lot of people are going to assume their usage is in line with the by now well established context for the term, and react in the approved fashion.

    Additionally, while I don’t know about Piketty in particular, some of our new economic physicians are pretty far out in their prescriptions, even when their diagnosis is accurate. If we’re going to tell conservatives that these critics have a point, we need to be pretty specific about which parts we don’t like, too. And it would be great if we could continually point out the conservative pedigree for these criticisms, and maybe even spend some time framing our thoughts in more conservative-friendly language–it would defuse a lot of suspicion from the outset and help avoid the hostile confrontations that always seem to happen on Facebook.

    Basically, I think we owe it to everybody to lay some real groundwork and points of rapprochement before calling them out for ethical obtuseness or the very grave sin of being from America.

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  5. Alexander Garden

    Shrewdly observed.

    I think the question is, are the problems that surface in consequence of inequality problems that are actually created by the inequality, or were they really there anyway?

    So the heart of man is sinful. If everyone does just what he wants, he is pleased and can be gracious. (Even publicans love those who love them.) But the sin is manifested when things do not go their way and they face deprivation and disappointment.

    Along those lines, when Korah, Dathan, and Abiram figured out there were never going to be as hot stuff as Moses, that caused problems. The problem, however, was not the inequality between themselves and Moses, but the hearts of those rebellious men.

    On the other hand, weak, silly women are led captive by false teachers, whose mouths must be stopped. And earnest, weaker brothers can be caused to stumble unnecessarily if you go about advertising that your meat is idol-worship leftovers. Also, blows that wound cleanse away evil and purify the heart. So there are circumstances where the system is the problem.

    This feels like one of those things that has to be carefully sorted out on a case by case basis. Maybe the inequality issue is really a non-issue. Sinners gonna sin. But the immigration issue is the consequence of bad laws that ought to be fixed. And abortion might be an issue that operates at both layers.

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