You rarely find someone who says that s/he is against justice, but you do find a lot of different definitions of justice. Here are five definitions of economic justice, together with my comments on which is the best from a Christian perspective:
1. Same for All
This is the idea that in a just and equal world, everybody has the exact same amount of money. There are hints towards this perspective in Lk 3:11 and 2 Cor. 8:13-15. However, this definition has received a lot of criticism simply because different people have different needs – people in poor countries without social safety nets need more money than people in rich countries, for example. This why not so many actually agree with this definition, even if we who try to promote equality are often accused of this while we really mean definition no. 2:
2. According to our needs
This is how the early church viewed economic justice: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” (Acts 2:44-45) We can also see this in Ex. 16 where the people collect heavenly bread every day, and since the greedy are unable to store up a lot for themselves, everyone are able to collect what their family needs for that particular day. The socialist motto “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” is based on the same line of thinking, but it was a biblical idea long before Marx was even born.
3. Reward for Work
According to this definition of justice, wealth should be distributed in accordance with how much each individual is working, or how much responsibility for others they have in their work. Christians who support this idea often point to the parable of the talents in Mt 25:14-30, where the servants who have mage good investments gets a higher wage.
However, this parable cannot have an economic meaning, since it would contradict other Biblical teaching if one can lose one’s salvation simply by making bad investments (in the same way, the parable of the oil lamps that preceeds the parable of the talents in Mt 25 hardly means that Christians have to have literal oil lamps ready when Jesus returns). The Bible encourages work, but it also encourages generous giving to the poor and community of goods. Furthermore, a hardcore interpretation of this perspective would be devastating for the sick, old, young and unemployed, since they cannot work.
4. “Hybrid” Justice
This is a combination of the different perspectives above, where one wants to give everyone a descent standard of living while allowing the zealous and hard-working to earn more. This is the official goal of welfare states and a view that many comply with. Still, it is harder to defend the idea that wealth should be distributed according to work rather than according to need from a Biblical standpoint. There is an even greater problem though – many people and states who think that they are promoting this definition of justice are actually promoting another definition that isn’t very just at all, namely:
5. Inherited (in)justice
This is the idea that wealth should be inherited, so that your wealth is dependent on which socio-economic status you were born into. This is the actual system we live in, and it is a form of injustice. If you think that wealth should be distributed according to how much people work, this world is totally upside down, ’cause those who are working the hardest are most often the poor:
And obviously, if you like Jesus and the apostles think that wealth should be distributed according to need, the inheritance model is also wrong. But this is how the world actually works – if you are born into a rich family and/or country, you tend to be rich, and vice versa if you are born poor.
I think it’s very clear that we should support definition 2, mostly for biblical reasons but also for democratic reasons. The idea that wealth should be earned or inherited is in my opinion contrary to the idea of everybody being equal. Like the apostles, I want us to share our stuff and money so that we can give to everybody according to their needs.
Great post, Micael! I was not familiar with that quote from George Monbiot.
Another good post on wealth.
Now I’m wondering what would be the result of the Costa Rica solution if we corrected that GDP per capita according to some socio-economic contexts and public services in each country =)
As for the point 5., it’s always a hard topic. For example, when people discuss racism and defends that black people should have some “advantages” in order to correct historical inequalities many say that it would be unfair, since most of whites nowadays aren’t to blame for errors of the past.
I myself don’t know exactly what are the best ways to correct some inherited injustices, but for sure it’s a topic that should be discussed in a greater depth.
[…] A couple of months ago I wrote about how economic inequality often is rationalized through claiming that hard work lies behind personal wealth, but I argued that this is wrong since may poor people work much harder than the rich – instead most wealth is inherited, and a lot of times it was originally collected through exploitation, slavery and war (and still is, to some extent). Basically, fairness isn’t just splitting inheritance equally, fairness is questioning why we want a lot of inhereted wealth. […]
[…] A couple of months ago I wrote about how economic inequality often is rationalized through claiming that hard work lies behind personal wealth, but I argued that this is wrong since may poor people work much harder than the rich – instead most wealth is inherited, and a lot of times it was originally collected through exploitation, slavery and war (and still is, to some extent). Basically, fairness isn’t just splitting inheritance equally between the inheritants, fairness is questioning why we want a lot of inherited wealth. […]