Equality – Part Two

Equality. What’s not to like? After all, it’s at the heart of Western democracy. Equal rights for men and women. No tolerance of racism. One person, one vote. We ALL have a say. Hence the cacophony in the blogosphere, Twitterverse and on Facebook and in every coffee bar and meeting place in the Western world. Oh my goodness, we all think our opinion should be heard.  We matter. Yeah!

Because we’re all equal.

Yes, we are. I’m not sure how atheists ground equality but I know how Christians arrive at this conclusion. We’re all made in the image of God. It’s the imago dei which provides the foundation for human rights and for human dignity. In fact, it is the Judeo-Christian belief in the imago dei which led to the transformation of Western society. William Wilberforce and Lord Shaftsbury are just two names one could cite as 19C human rights campaigners, who called on government to acknowledge human value based on the imago dei.

So far, so good.

But now let’s question this assumption. To what extent are we really equal? What makes me like you? I heard a philosophy professor once give an amusing answer to this question. He’d asked his daughter what made her the same as others. Her answer? We all have belly buttons. Nice one. You see, I think politicians are often employing a deft handling trick with our vocabulary. From equality to sameness in one easy move. See? You didn’t even notice. Speaking of sameness, I’m reminded of this extract from the great comedian, Jerry Seinfeld. This is a section from his stand-up comedy, Clothes:

Any time you see a movie or a TV show where there’s people from the future – or another planet – they’re all wearing the same outfit. I think the decision just gets made. All right, everyone, from now on, it’s just going to be the one-piece silver suit with the V-stripe and the boots. That’s the outfit. We’re visiting other planets, we wanna look like a team. The individuality thing is over.

The individuality thing is over. For some politicians, I almost think that’s what they’re suggesting. Enough with variety. We’re equal amounts to ‘being the same.’ And because we’re really the same, or should be, we should all own the same amount. Equality of intrinsic value equates to the virtue of flattening out society. If you’re down, the state should lift you up. If you’re up, the state should flatten you down. Why? Apparently in the name of combating the legacy of historical injustices. More on that in a moment.

First, a comment on sameness. We’re not the same. We’re different. We come in infinite shapes and sizes. We’re black, white, brown, big, small, fat, thin. We sport tattoos, big hair, sideburns, flowery shirts with big collars, no collars. We wear no clothes, lots of clothes, speak different languages, do different jobs, enjoy different kinds of food, hate football, love cooking, wear goatees, throw javelins, are kind and unkind, cruel and compassionate. And it is our difference which, to a large extent, produces our inequality. Of course, there are many other forces in the mix – our freedom and our fallenness, to name just two – but let’s be clear.  Variety emerges naturally. And there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with it.

Think about it this way. In the parable of the talents, each man is given a different amount. They invest it differently and each gains a different return. In the same way, if I were to give ten different people the same amount of money and I told each one to invest wisely, what would happen? They would earn ten different amounts of return. Some would fritter it away, some would get some bad luck. Some would work hard, but being rather dense, wouldn’t know how to invest wisely. And still others would reap the benefits of their wisdom, savvy instincts and maybe some good old-fashioned luck and earn a goodly amount of cash. The vagaries of life along with our differences produce these inequalities.

However, for politicians, the issue isn’t whether people in a society could ever become perfectly equal. That is obviously never going to happen, notwithstanding the doomed supposed attempts to equalize things in Soviet Russia and other failed state experiments. The issue is how you see the role of the state. Is it there to combat the legacy of historical injustices? Eg. privilege. In other words, is it there to shore up one class over another or tear one class down in favour of another? Hmm. Well, I don’t like the idea of class warfare of any kind, whether inspired by left or right. I do, however, wish for the government to run the country competently. And I think ultimately it comes down to how you answer this question: Should you design your system based on the brutal reality of what we’re like as humans, or base it on what we should be?  I’m sure you remember the most well-known quote from Gordon Gekko in Wall Street.

Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.

Ooh. We recoil. And rightly so. Greed isn’t good and every Christian knows it. But hold on. What’s he saying? He’s saying that humankind is selfish and greedy and that’s good because it drives economic growth. Hmm. Well, it’s hard not to agree with the last part. What drives economic growth? Fortunately not just greed. In fact, it’s competition. And aspiration. The human being is inherently competitive. The human being desires to be able to ‘get ahead’ and succeed, not to mention provide for his/her family. Capitalism, for all its flaws, has generated astonishing economic growth simply by enabling human beings to ‘compete’ within a system governed by the rule of law. The reality is that capitalism liberates human potential better than its competitors. Is it perfect? Not at all. But it’s the best we’ve come up with so far. Yet it comes with an underside which most economists have recognized: sadly, it leads to the rich becoming richer and the poor becoming poorer.

It leads to inequality. And that’s bad. Not good.

What? You want me to advocate the overthrow of the capitalist system? Sorry. That’s a little beyond me. So, what’s the solution? Well, let’s get down to brass tacks. You don’t have to agree with me, but if you’re running the country, here’s my ten cents to help you along.

1. Tax policy should encourage enterprise and not discourage it. Starting and running a business shouldn’t be mired in red tape and heavy tax burdens.

2. Tax policy should promote socially beneficial institutions like the family. It’s bad for people to co-habit because the ‘system’ rewards them for it.

3. The wealthy should pay proportionately more than the poor because they can afford it, not for the sake of equality. But not too much, because that simply stifles enterprise and crushes aspiration. As most governments know, there is a balance to be struck. Please strike it without giving us all the slogans and rhetoric. A vain hope, I know.

4. Corporations and rich people who use their wealth to ‘rig the system,’ avoid tax and generally act badly should be prosecuted. Publish the names of companies who ‘avoid tax’ and those companies who use their financial muscle to eliminate fair competition. In short, strive to make the system as ‘fair’ as is humanly possible. ‘Being wealthy’ is no defence against what amounts to morally corrupt and criminal behaviour.

4. The reason for the welfare system is not to tackle inequality. The reason for the welfare system is to ensure social cohesion. It’s not good in a society with family breakdown to end up with lots of people who have no hope. It’s also a bad idea to have lots of destitute people who can’t support themselves.

5. Entitlement is not good. For anyone. Working is always better than living on welfare and many Western governments are beginning to acknowledge this. Here’s a clue as to why entitlement is bad. When you’re given something, you should be able to say ‘thank you.’ But whoever said ‘thank you’ to a system? Hence, welfare recipients start to see their handout not as a gift, but as an entitlement, which crushes gratitude.

6. Don’t encourage envy in voters (see last post).

And finally, some advice for us voters:

  1. Live selflessly. Use your wealth to help people. In the U.K., if you donate to a charity, the charity is able to claim the tax you have already paid. Say, 25%. This is the wrong way to do it. Given that we’re selfish, fallen people, giving us an incentive to give to charity is much more enlightened. In the U.S.A., if you give to charity, you receive a tax deduction, which encourages charitable giving. Big time. We should do that here in the U.K. Currently, if you’re a basic rate tax payer – most of the people I know, I’m guessing – then you derive no benefit from your charitable giving.
  1. If you want to be an ‘activist,’ then choose a cause which unquestionably promotes the good.  Here are some: Oppose Human Trafficking. Campaign to get rid of Third World Debt. Advocate for clean water in developing countries. Go there and build a well. Support a child in Africa. Foster/adopt a child. Teach a child to read. Give to a food bank. Volunteer. Every one of these is a fight for equality, because helping those in need raises people up. No government necessary. And that’s a good thing.
  1. Stop looking for the government to solve society’s ills and go and do one of the above.

In short, live a compassionate life. Hey, in the end it’s got to be better to help your neighbour than spend lots of time petitioning the government to help your neighbour. This evening, you could wash his/her car, lend a hand with the gardening or just chat over the fence and show some love. Or you could hand out leaflets which criticize some public servants of a different political persuasion because ‘they’re not doing enough.’

Whoa. Look at the time. Sorry. Gotta run. I’m late for a party. I’m sure you can guess what I’m wearing. Yup. The one-piece silver suit with the V-stripe and the boots.

Bye for now.

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Equality – Part One

I don’t really believe in equality. There. I’ve said it. Actually, I needed a first line to grab your attention. Still reading?

Okay. So Equality. After moving to the U.K. from California in 2007, I noticed very quickly how important this word is in British political and public speech. It’s everywhere. It’s revered. It’s almost god-like in its capacity to produce secular genuflecting. In political parlance, Equality is closely related to one of the other favourites: Fairness. The Liberal Democrats absolutely adore that word. It’s rare to hear Nick Clegg, their leader, fail to use it – normally several times – in an interview. It fills his every political thought, I’m sure. Perhaps because, well, how can anyone be against Fairness? It’s a winner. Which little kid in each of us doesn’t remember some childhood memory when we didn’t get what we wanted? When life simply wasn’t FAIR! So good on you, Mr. Clegg, for enticing us with the promise of Fairness.

And Equality.

Because they’re related, aren’t they? At least they are in the political language of our time. How can it be fair that some people have more than others? That’s not fair. We need to take from some and give to others. Whoa, whoa. Hold on a minute. Before we become mired in Robin Hood politics, and Labour readers switch off while Conservatives begin to rant rather unhelpfully, I’d like to highlight my primary response to this issue. I believe our obsession with equality and fairness leads to what can only be described as the politics of envy. And that’s a bad thing. A very bad thing. Here’s a quote from Suzy Stride, the Labour parliamentary candidate for Harlow in Christianity magazine.

We know where some kids are going to end up (even) when they’re in their mother’s womb, and it’s just not fair. I believe we need a government that levels the playing field.

This is classic Labour reasoning. There’s inequality in society. The state should intervene and ‘level the playing field.’ There is so much to be said in response to such reasoning, but in order to encourage you to come back later this week, I will address the role of the state in a later post. Keep reading my blog and you’ll soon find plenty with which to disagree!

Right now, I’d like to voice my concerns about the kind of politics we’re encouraging by talk of ‘levelling the playing field.’ Because the politics of envy is everywhere. Last night, Labour’s leader, Ed Milliband, in his keynote speech to the Labour Party Conference, contrasted himself with the Prime Minister, David Cameron. Cameron, he said, is the one who sides with the wealthy while I will repeal the Bedroom Tax*. That’s a paraphrase. And it is classic politics of envy.

Shame on our politicians for doing this. In the Bible, envy is unequivocally condemned. God even included a prohibition on it in the Ten Commandments. It’s that last one, which we tend to forget. Do not covet. Covet: such an old-fashioned word, isn’t it? Try envy. Wishing you had something which doesn’t belong to you.

Before you think this is a right-wing rant, let me make clear right now that this post has nothing to do with party politics. Politics involves some measure of ‘slicing up the pie’ and talk of Fairness and Equality is bound to come into the picture. Along with Responsibility, Freedom, Economic Growth and the Common Good. Right now, however, I’m much more interested in the way that our politic language damages us morally. Or at least, evokes responses which can be potentially damaging to our character development. Think of your consumption of politics the way you think of hearing a sermon. Political speeches and sermons are designed to elicit a response. So what happens when you listen to a politician encouraging you to envy other people?

First, it drains you of your joy. It causes you to keep looking at your glass and seeing it as half empty. Stop looking at all that lovely liquid you do have and keep reminding yourself that your glass isn’t as full as the glass belonging to other people. Mr. Voter, let me remind you of how much you don’t have and what the government isn’t doing for you.

Closely related to this is that it radically undermines one of the key Christian virtues: gratitude. Gratitude is an essential quality exhibited by the mature Christian. The capacity to praise God in the face of hardship is recognized by all the great Christian writers as a highly sought-after virtue. However, it is extremely difficult to thank God for all that he has provided while at the same time feeling aggrieved that others have more than you. Just try it. Furthermore, the politics of envy has the potential of misleading you into thinking that material goods will satisfy you. If only you had a little more. If only . . .

There is one final point. It’s one which the people of Israel failed to learn throughout most of the Old Testament. They were terrified of Assyria. They trembled before Babylon. And they turned to Egypt! How could they? Because when things are bad, whom can you trust? Seriously. To whom do you turn when you’re in trouble? You turn to God. You trust him. The most egregious sin of the politics of envy might be that it sets up the state as a rival to God. Who’s going to save you? Who will you trust?

There are some who cite the reasons I’ve given above as sufficiently damaging to the spiritual life that Christians should be warned against engaging in politics. They divide flesh and spirit and argue that we should disengage from political life. I don’t agree. I applaud those who enter into the blood sport of politics, believing that they serve the cause of Christ in an arena which needs saltiness and light just as every area of life does. I’m also aware that running the country is a fiendishly difficult thing to do. I know I couldn’t do it. So, if you enjoy politics and perhaps are even a politician of some kind, be my guest. Be blessed in what you do.

But please don’t encourage envy in your voters. You wouldn’t advise people to murder, or commit adultery or take part in the occasional bit of robbery.

That would be a bad move. A very bad move.

+Next time . . . I will actually address the issue of equality!

*For my American readers, google Bedroom Tax U.K. and something helpful should come up.