Erasing Inequality?

It is 2014 and, heaven help us, it is another election year in America. The talking points are already taking shape in our own political Yugoslavia, where dialogue was long ago supplanted by lecturing. On the right, one cannot hiccup without the word “Obamacare” coming out. Comparisons to the Hindenburg and Titanic are considered too tame; at least the former made it across the Atlantic and the latter had a few lovely days at sea. It has been intriguing to me that this blog, with contributors of strong opinion and willingness to express such, has left untouched commentary on the October 2013 rollout of the Affordable Care Act (ACA for short; “Obamacare “ as a term has gone from pejorative to badge of honor to pejorative again, and “ACA” is quicker to type, so thus it is…). I do wonder if, among its supporters and detractors alike, the difficult launch of the ACA has created some sense of grief, where the laudable aims of medicine to help all who suffer, and where there should be no affirmation that “everything is just fine the way it is,” should be considered acceptable. If this reform fails, perhaps we will never get any kind of reform. I won’t put words in the mouths of my blogging colleagues, but there has to be, at some humanitarian level, a bid of sadness at the initial difficulties of the ACA for those at the margins of society. On the right, I think it legitimate that there needs to be some expression of that, even within a firm critique of the legislation itself.

On the left, that all-American response to adversity—change the subject—has brought us to the “Message of 2014: Economic Inequality Must Not Stand.” This is, to some degree, laudable: recessions tend to ensure that winners win big and losers lose badly. Jesus told us that the poor would always be with us, but he didn’t seem especially happy about that whenever he encountered poverty. A sorrow about poverty is not the exclusive domain of a single political ideology, though how to deal with it varies greatly between the two American political parties. Solutions abound…just today came a piece by a former Bush Press Secretary, Ari Fleischer (can’t get the hyperlink to work, just Google it), about the social roots of economic inequality. At least we are all talking about it…

But is economic inequality sufficient as an ethical imperative? It seems there are lots of other kinds of inequality that should have principles of distributive justice applied as well. There is a thought that economic inequality is often a product of the “lucky versus the unlucky.” Some have advantages, things that allow them to win at life’s financial lottery. Others hold pieces of paper with losing lottery numbers and work on to beat the odds next time. I have not spent long periods of time studying economics, but it seems that there are a lot of lucky and unlucky people out there, too, beyond those who play the lottery for money.  My athletic prowess is revealed with many a “came in just before the guy with a heart attack” finishes in 5K races. Perhaps (and believably) I am not well-trained, but maybe I’m just not lucky to be gifted as an athlete.  But it would sure be great to be the top finisher in my age group!

Lots of other examples abound. Some seem to come down to the lottery of good fortune, or abundant blessing for the Calvinists out there. An advocate of the ACA, MIT’s Jonathan Gruber, sent the conservative blogosphere into hysterics this past fall when he declared that “genetic lottery winners” have paid “artificially low” insurance rates up until the advent of the ACA, where the playing field would now be leveled. There is more than a kernel of truth to that—it has genuinely paid to be healthy. But is that itself a form of inequality, a distributive injustice? Much can be said about what a social contract should include—what provides for the majority who didn’t “win the lottery,” and what means should exist to allow them to flourish. But is genetic fairness even a good thing?

Intellectually, economic injustice should mean that the many that are economically disadvantaged are not made “less poor” or the well-off made “less rich.” Each should make marked strides toward the middle, with the result that many get much richer and few get slightly poorer. In the perception of most, though, and with only a passing glance at the claims of the rich who are to be “soaked,” the standard becomes one that all should consider themselves rich. It is the mark of the human heart to find that no level of riches is completely satisfying, and so “good enough” is, alas, not good enough.

Does that perception apply to those who are not winners in the genetic lottery? If so, that means that there is an ethical imperative to be as close as possible to the best and brightest. Fortunately, we think, technology when applied to biology can do what economics cannot and even the playing field without the “genetic winners” giving up much more than their exclusivity. We all can be the best! Here there is more than a passing dalliance with eugenics, all in the name of equality.

I am an advocate of care for the poor, for helping those who are suffering economically, whether from mistakes they have made or through no fault of their own. Justice and grace are about that. But I know that humans have sought to be better than they are, to reach greater heights, and that life in a fallen world cannot erase the inequalities that arise as a natural phenomenon. So when we look at a more even playing field, in “economic inequality” or in human health and flourishing, have we really considered what most people find that to be, and whether erasing inequality in all its forms is a worthy objective for us to pursue?

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