Inequality Is Not Injustice

By K. Tymon Zhou | United States

The question of inequality is ancient. In our time,  liberals argue that income inequality justifies greater government intervention. This is often colored in moral terms as a dire injustice. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Politics takes a different view: inequality is not injustice and centralization has potentially terrible consequences.

Inequality is not injustice.  To probe the question of defining justice, Aristotle ponders an individual giving needlessly extravagant gifts.  Is this an example of injustice? No!

Again, one who gives what is his own,…is not unjustly treated; for though to give is in his power, to be unjustly treated is not, but there must be some one to treat him unjustly. It is plain, then, that being unjustly treated is not voluntary.

Injustice is not the consequences of one’s own choices.  Experiencing crushing debt after a series of poor financial decisions is not injustice.  It is the result of one’s own poor foresight and one must take responsibility for it.

Instead, injustice is characterized by involuntary suffering. Others harming another can bring this about. Thus, embezzlement creates injustice. In this case, an individual deliberately manipulates another for his or her own amoral self-interest. The victim’s righteous indignation is completely justified.  Do we as a society have the same right?

No.  As a society, we suffer the consequences of our collective choices. No one individual is responsible for trade deficits. No one individual produced a post-industrial economy.  Instead, society produced and later embraced these trends. Industries rise and fall based on consumer preferences.  Consequently, certain communities abound in wealth.

California’s Silicon Valley has become synonymous with affluence while Appalachia struggles. This is tragic, but not unjust. As a society, we’ve chosen to value certain skills such as software engineering more than others. Does economic injustice occur? Yes, but these are isolated occurrences.

There are prejudiced employers and dishonest bankers. There is not however, an organized cabal of capitalists conspiring to perpetuate inequality. Injustice implies deliberate victimization.  This element is missing in income inequality

Inequalities are tragic.  How then should governments respond to them?  Aristotle, in his characteristic thoughtfulness, provides no simple solutions.  However, Aristotle strongly rejects socialist collectivism.  Consider this scathing criticism of collectivist legislation:

Such legislation may have a specious appearance of benevolence; men readily listen to it, and are easily induced to believe that in some wonderful manner everybody will become everybody’s friend, especially when some one is heard denouncing the evils now existing in states, suits about contracts, convictions for perjury, flatteries of rich men and the like, which are said to arise out of the possession of private property. These evils, however, are due to a very different cause—the wickedness of human nature.

Herein lies the difficulty of inequality. No administration can eradicate greed or compel diligence. It may be possible to mitigate the consequences of such vices, but it is not in the government’s power to revolutionize human nature.  Additionally, bureaucrats and legislators themselves possess the very same vices they deplore in private citizens. It does not take a political genius to recognize the causes of pork-barrel spending. For the sake of their own ambition, legislators forsake their ideals.  Such is the wickedness of human nature.

Aristotle’s counsel is timeless.  Inequalities are not unjust; they are tragic. Wickedness does occur and government should respond. Yet, governments cannot remove it by taking a more proactive economic role. Governments should instead act cautiously and prudently, mindful of these principles.

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