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.
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