In his recent address to representatives from the United Nations, Pope Francis called for “the legitimate redistribution of economic benefits by the State” in order to alleviate poverty. The pope believes economic inequality is wrong and that government should forcibly remedy the problem.
But the pope is wrong on both counts.
First, coercive wealth redistribution (i.e., “redistribution of economic benefits by the State”) is inherently illegitimate because it violates individuals’ rights to keep or use their own wealth as they see fit, a right derived from the requirements of man’s life and happiness on Earth. Second, there is nothing wrong with economic inequality.
Invariably, in the course of pursuing their personal values and goals in life, some individuals will acquire more wealth than others; but as long as they do not gain it by violating rights—that is, by initiating physical force or committing fraud or the like—it is morally theirs to keep. Some jobs or careers are more lucrative than others. An investment banker typically makes more money than a cashier. An orthodontist usually makes more money than a nurse. This is not a problem; it’s simply a matter of different interests, different skills, different choices. Some people might feel that certain professions are underpaid or that others are overpaid, but the morally correct payment for someone’s work is always a matter of voluntary agreement between the parties involved.
But not according to the pope. The pope believes that inequality of wealth is unjust and that the solution is (as Obama puts it) to spread the wealth around. Why does the pope believe this? Because the Bible tells him so.
The Bible has myriad references to the propriety of wealth redistribution, including the command to “Give to everyone who asks of you, and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back” (Luke 6:30); and to “sell your possessions and give to the poor” (Luke 12:33). The Bible even portrays communal ownership of wealth as an ideal (e.g., Acts 2:44–45 and 4:32–35) and provides a precursor to Karl Marx’s famous slogan “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”: “Your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need . . . ‘Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack’” (II Corinthians 8:14–15).
Although one might argue that the Bible does not command forcible redistribution of wealth, it certainly commands the morality of giving one’s wealth to the needy. And as the pope’s statements demonstrate, people’s moral convictions shape their political positions. By and large, people who believe that we have a moral responsibility to give our belongings to others will call for the state to force people to do so. All of history is testament to this fact.
If lovers of liberty want to effectively counter the pope’s (and others’) calls for coercive wealth redistribution, we must challenge his Bible-based morality and repudiate the false notion that we are our brother’s keeper.