On the anniversary week of President Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” it seems that income inequality and what civil government is going to do about it have become the issue of the day. In my opinion, the very term denotes a problem, confuses the issue, and masks the real solution.
At the outset, let me clarify: to question the term “income inequality” does not mean that one does not care that there are those who live in poverty. Nor does it mean that one does not want everyone to achieve prosperity. Rather, I question the term in order to encourage an examination of civil government’s function relative to the income of its citizens.
“Income inequality” evokes a visceral reaction because no one is for inequality. It evokes that response because it raises the specter of injustice. We all know that treating equal things unequally is unjust. But we also know that treating unequal things equally is to sow favoritism to the lesser of the two and is also unjust.
So the real issue underlying “income inequality” is justice. And because justice is a primary and proper function of civil government, it would be good to redefine the debate in terms of justice
Therefore, what we need to talk about is not income inequality but economic justice. For the reasons that follow, I submit that economic justice will require civil government to actually foster — not continue giving lip service to — a just, free market system. Unfortunately, I fear many on the left and the right don’t truly understand the concepts upon which a just, free market system is founded.
To understand the justice of free markets, we must understand that justice is rendering to each person what he or she is due according to a true standard of measurement. Economic justice is simply justice in the economic realm.
A moment’s reflection will make clear that the first hurdle is what we should use as the true standard of measure and who is to decide what that measure is. My guess is that as many standards would be proposed as there are people to propose them.
Immediately we see that civil government is limited when it comes to economic justice. As evidenced by the fights in Congress over the minimum wage, no one person or group of persons can decide for everyone else what that standard should be. Only a God whose very nature is just could decide that; and we are not God.
This inability of man to determine a true standard of measure for the value of every man’s labor and for every consumer good that labor produces is one reason why free markets are the most just economic system known to man. A just, free market makes everyone the judge of that standard in every economic transaction. No one decides what that standard is for anyone else. This is not only economic justice, it is economic freedom.
What civil government can do — the remedy for economic injustice — is make sure that people get what they are due. In other words, ensure a just, free market system, the components of which can be stated in cursory fashion as follows.
1. Ensure that each person’s private property is protected so that he or she can use it to produce value and keep the value it produces. That means that civil government must protect us against theft and the other forms it takes, such as fraud.
2. Protect our person against injury by others so that the life we’ve been given can be fully used to achieve all we can.
3. Equally apply and enforce the laws regarding property and person. Favoritism on both sides of the political aisle is unjust and destroys economic justice.
4. Create a truly just judicial system by which violations of those laws can be remedied.
When these things are done, then civil government can provide equality of opportunity, and that really is all civil government can do, because sadly there are some who will consciously not take advantage of those opportunities.
To create a system by which the force of law treats them the same as those who, being equally situated, took advantage of those opportunities is to treat as equals those things that are not equal. Doing that is economic injustice, and a denial of the economic justice we need.