Voices
Illustration by Krieg Barrie

Counting raisins

Government attempts to equalize incomes don't help the poor

Issue: "Return to war?," May 5, 2012

Equality is a good thing, as even little children know. Try dividing a handful of raisins among a group of 4-year-olds and you'll see how finely tuned their sense of equality is. Try doing this in the middle of a snack time at VBS or daycare and you'll find out how limited your patience is. Even if they don't like raisins that much, they insist that everybody must get the same-which really means nobody gets more than me.

An exasperated young mother might be comforted to know that her eagle-eyed toddler can now pursue his raisin-counting through college and beyond. Some universities, like Cornell, even offer a minor degree in "Inequality Studies" for students who are "interested in government service, policy work, or related jobs in nongovernmental organizations." Berkeley offers a program called "Social Inequalities, American Cultures." Occidental has "Social Class and Inequality in the United States." The point of studying inequality, presumably, is to achieve its opposite. But it doesn't seem to work that way.

The practical result of inequality studies might be the Occupy Wall Street movement, with its castigation of the "1 percent" and no workable plan to elevate the other ninety-nine except "The rich must pay their fair share." Or, to put it another way, "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." We've learned from experience, however, that any serious government attempt to equalize income elevates no one except the government.

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"I thought love meant equality," says a character in That Hideous Strength, the last volume of C.S. Lewis' space trilogy. "I thought it was in their souls that people were equal."

"You were mistaken," replies Dr. Ransom, the hero of the series. "That is the last place where they are equal. ... Equality guards life; it doesn't make it. It is medicine, not food."

In other words, some notion of equality is necessary to keep human beings from trampling each other, but the greater the commitment, the less it applies. One sure way to wreck a marriage is to insist on dividing everything equally: income, household duties, child care. That actually sounds more like a divorce. Only when the partners are fully in debt to each other do they become something more than partners, and equality is the least of their concerns.

In 1630, while still on board the ship that had carried him from England to the New World, John Winthrop wrote a manifesto called "A Model of Christian Charity," outlining his hopes for the colony soon to be established in what we now call Boston. "God Almighty, in His most holy and wise providence, has so disposed of the condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich; some poor; some high and eminent in power and dignity; others mean and in subjection."

God has His reasons, according to Winthrop: first, to glorify Himself in the variety of gifts He bestows; second, to exhibit the work of the Spirit in moderating the rich and contenting the poor; third, to encourage men to recognize their need for each other. Winthrop's plan for Boston was based on charity, not equality, with rich and poor alike acknowledging their mutual dependence on God. "For we must consider that we shall be like a City upon a Hill; the eyes of all people are on us."

For almost 400 years, with many mistakes, misdeeds and false starts, American society has held roughly to that model. In spite of "all men are created equal," equality is more a means than an end; Americans share opportunity but not result.

The present administration keeps signaling that equality is their goal and "from each according to his ability" is a legitimate means. But make no mistake: If the philosophy of Occupy Wall Street prevails, it will replace citizens with raisin-counters.

Email jcheaney@worldmag.com

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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