John Winthrop believed inequality is a problem. In 1630, on board the ship Arbella, he made the case in the sermon “Model of Christian Charity.” Whatever one thinks of his purported explanation for why inequality exists or of his ideas for coping with the problem, he warns that the problem is real.

God, Winthrop says, 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 submission.” Among the reasons Winthrop cites:

[God] might have the more occasion to manifest the work of his Spirit: first upon the wicked in moderating and restraining them, so that the rich and mighty should not eat up the poor, nor the poor and despised rise up against and shake off their yoke. Secondly, in the regenerate, in exercising His graces in them, as in the great ones, their love, mercy, gentleness, temperance etc., and in the poor and inferior sort, their faith, patience, obedience etc.

That’s only one part of the sermon, but I’m going to dwell on it. I read it as saying social inequalities are justified because they’re “God’s will.”

But justified or not, inequality is a problem, Winthrop seems to also be saying. Whatever good he can see coming from inequality, its existence is a warning as well as a opportunity for providence to do what providence does. The rich could eat up the poor. The poor could rise up against the rich.

Our sensibilities here are not necessarily what we might think they are. About the poor rising up to “shake off their yoke,” we probably entertain the possibility that the uprising is or can be a good thing. Or we might be quick to point out that what Winthrop might call “rising up” is more an assertion of rights, or an attempt to survive, than anything nefarious. Still, I don’t know how far most of us would go to endorse the uprising or the collateral damage that might ensue.

To make it more personal, I’d resent it if someone mugged me even if I grant they did so only because they really needed the money or because they are a bread thief. Not that all redistribution or “rising up” is comparable to a mugging. But if ending someone else’s poverty requires me to surrender even a small portion of my wealth or occasions an inconvenience to me of some sort, and even if I agree that the redistribution is right and just, it can still hurt in the short term. (For what it’s worth, a goodly amount of so-called “liberal” reform in the US usually sold on the claim that only the very rich will be inconvenienced. See Obama’s 2008 promise to raise taxes only on those who earn more than $250,000.)

Most of us probably agree that the rich eating up the poor is a bad thing, for certain values of “eating.” (I don’t really want to do it, but (sigh) I guess I have to offer this link.) But I’m not so sure we don’t do it. Most of us who adhere to a given political orientation–liberal, conservative, libertarian, for example–concur that feeding off the poor is bad. We may differ in assessing how the poor are fed off of, who is to blame, and how to end the feeding. But most of them–most of us–at least claim to agree that it’s bad.

Still, we’ve got ours and intend to keep it. Very few of us are going to engage in a life dedicated to fixing those things. Even fewer will withdraw from society to avoid all complicity in the feeding, not that such withdrawal would be easy or helpful. Maybe we can endorse a “first do no harm” strategy: don’t actively do anything to make things worse but try to fix things when we can and when it’s convenient. That’s probably the best we can hope for unless we want to be (non-fallen) angels, and I don’t want to be an angel.

But, you might object, Winthrop’s inequality is a zero sum game. It ignores that we can increase the size of the pie so everybody gets more even if some get even more than others. You might be right. I for one am a bigger believer than I used to be that material wealth can be increased for all and that we should pause before assuming the fact of inequality is automatically a problem. The “inequality symposium” Over There a few years ago drove that point home for me. And maybe material wealth is conducive to moral or humanitarian or spiritual (or whatever you want to call it). Such seems to be one of Deirdre McCloskey’s arguments in Bourgeois Virtues. (I think. I’m only 100 pages into and am a bit unclear on what exactly she’s arguing.)

While important, that objection doesn’t address Winthrop’s point. As long as there’s inequality, some will have more than others. Those who lack will be tempted to envy and to deny the humanity of those who have. How often have I heard of a real hardship suffered by someone much better off than me and yet mocked the person because after all, they had more? I don’ t know, but I can think of at least one example (the context is a discussion of Anne Romney’s convention speech in 2012 where she disclosed she suffered from MS and had suffered from breast cancer.)

Those who have will be tempted to abuse their gifts against their weaker or less provisioned neighbors. As someone who enjoys almost the full complement of special advantages (formerly known as “privileges”) that make living in this country so much easier, I have doubtlessly engaged in enough careless or casual cruelty toward others who do not share my good fortune. If I chose to bore you with specific examples, they would probably just sound like good old fashioned white liberal guilt. Nevertheless, it’s true.

I was going to end with an admonition to question our own envy against those who have what we lack and to exercise restraint and compassion when dealing with those who lack what we have. Noble sentiments. But I suppose most people hold them anyway and my harangues probably just sound preachy.

I’ll leave you instead with this. Less inequality is probably better than more if only because it tempers the temptations to vengeance and casual cruelty. But I suspect we can never end it altogether, and  I’m not sure we ought to if we could. And I agree with Wintrhop. It is a real problem.


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9 Responses to John Winthrop: inequality is a problem

  1. greginak says:

    I think inequality would be less of an issue if we were actively trying to increase the size of the pie for all and making sure all had the more of the most important bits. But i don’t see that. In fact it seems like a common point for those who don’t think inequality is an issue to make it all about envy or other mean emotions. Just ignore the substance of the argument and make it personal.

    • I don’t think I was actually trying to deflect the substance so much as I was abstracting inequality from the question of basic necessities.

      I really do believe, although I did not state so in the post, that not having enough food or clothing or shelter or even disposable income beyond those necessities is a bad thing. I personally believe that all deserve at the very least basic necessities and probably even more than just the basic necessities. I would support a system that I believe helps bring about that outcome. Inasmuch as redistribution (and therefore lessening inequality) is a necessary means to that ends, I support redistribution.

      But I’m hesitant about endorsing redistribution as an end in itself. Not wholly opposed, mind. People might see they have more in common and treat each other better if the disparities weren’t so wide.

      Or to put another way, let’s grant that inequality exists. Let’s also grant there are steps we can and should do to alleviate it or lessen it and pursue those things. In the meantime, inequality still exists and its existence could give us insight into how we act before we actually achieve the steps in question. To my mind, that’s part of problem of inequality

      Finally, I’ll say we agree on one thing. Too many people write op-eds or blog posts with “and the politics of envy” in the title wherein they actually ignore really pressing issues that some people face.

      • greginak says:

        Sorry, i was unclear. I wasn’t’ suggesting you were trying to deflect the substance just that is the primary use of “envy” and such other comments. I don’t think redistribution is end in itself and i doubt many people do. In terms of snobs who want to look down on other people, there will always be those people and they will find some way to look down on others if they wish.

  2. fillyjonk says:

    About the Anne Romney story: I was thinking the other day how you’re more likely now to hear “check your privilege” than you are to hear “be kind, for everyone around you is fighting a hard battle.”

    I had the lesson handed to me in high school: I went to a prep school and was one of the “poorer” students there. I knew a girl who came from a VERY wealthy family who seemed to want for nothing. And then I found out that one weekend she wanted to go home (she boarded; I was a day student) her mother sent her a “bribe” of six pairs of brand-new Guess! jeans (new and very, very hot then) to keep her from going home, because her mom had a new lover and her mom would rather spend the weekend with her lover than entertain her daughter….

    after that, I was happier to have Sears-brand jeans but parents who loved me and wanted me there….

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