In a recent blog post, Edward Feser addresses the contemporary rhetoric of inequality. He points out, quite rightly to my mind, that pure quantitative equality–in which everyone has the same income, has equal personal wealth, and so on–does not belong to the natural order of things. Much of today’s political rhetoric does indeed seem to equate inequality with injustice.
If we cannot simply equate inequality with injustice, what do the two have to do with each other? Are we simply bound by natural justice to provide for the destitute’s most basic needs? What might Aquinas say?
Aquinas, as it happens, does speak of “inequality [inaequalitas] which is contrary to justice.” Justice and inequality are intrinsically related. Aquinas grounds justice identifies inequality as a particular evil:
Injustice is twofold. First there is illegal injustice which is opposed to legal justice: and this is essentially a special vice, in so far as it regards a special object, namely the common good which it contemns; and yet it is a general vice, as regards the intention, since contempt of the common good may lead to all kinds of sin. Thus too all vices, as being repugnant to the common good, have the character of injustice, as though they arose from injustice, in accord with what has been said above about justice. Secondly we speak of injustice in reference to an inequality between one person and another, when one man wishes to have more goods, riches for example, or honors, and less evils, such as toil and losses, and thus injustice has a special matter and is a particular vice opposed to particular justice. ST II Q. 59 a. 1
Aquinas, at least, speaks of inequality as a form of injustice. Thus, natural justice demands not only that a society provide for the basic needs of the destitute, but, Aquinas thinks, also that it avoid more generally inequality that is contrary to justice.
In fact, Aquinas’ view is much more hostile to our current form of global capitalism than the contemporary American left. Aquinas does not merely think that a society should justly apportion wealth, he qualifies the sense in which private property may be held privately. Property owned privately only with respect to its procurement and dispensation, but insofar as its use is concerned, property is common. The notion that, in the modern world, property could be administrated by private persons, but be commonly held with respect to its actual use is both highly relevant and farther than any on the left or the right would go. It certainly makes me uncomfortable.
Aquinas even goes so far as to say that “in cases of need all things are common property, so that there would seem to be no sin in taking another’s property, for need has made it common.” He holds that for people in that situation to take what they need from those who have more than they need is not stealing.
Thus, in cases of need, Aquinas contemplates providing for the poor by the direct taking of property from those who have more. Absent this degree of need, Aquinas thinks that societies should avoid undue disproportions of wealth. While an inflexible equality of wealth is contrary to the natural order, Aquinas nevertheless maintains that wealth distribution observe a geometrical proportion. (ST II. a 61, q. 10) In a world in which wealth is distributed by orders of magnitude, Aquinas’ views are shockingly radical, and while his rhetoric is less extreme that contemporary egalitarians, his prescriptions for a just society are far more extreme.