Swimming with Sharks and Equality Vigilantes

Thieves are typically pegged under one of two caricatures. The first is the burglar ruffian who picks your pocket, breaks into your car, or steals your Amazon package. The second is the white-collar fat cat, embezzling from his employees and clients or pulling the strings of a Ponzi scheme. Both are met with public condemnation, and both are hunted by the emblems of justice (i.e. the local police and the FBI).

But what about the systemic, institutionally protected forms of robbery? These are forms of legal theft which break no laws, yet distort principles of just ownership. The motives and methods behind such thefts vary. Some prey upon the “haves,” others upon the “have-nots”—yet both are committing nothing short of swindling, depriving others to build themselves up.

Sharks and Minnows

We can see theft happening in the ecosystem of “Economic Sharks.” In true Darwinian style, these sharks prey upon the weak and poor — those who have few resources and little recourse. Often the sharks pose as those who wish to help and lend a hand — but the hand they offer holds a handcuff. They let the little fish swim right up to them, and then swallow them whole.

In what world can interest rates of 15, 20, 25% be considered conscionable? And yet it’s all above board because, after all, they (the prey) signed the contract, didn’t they? The sharks have it in writing. Their defense is that the financial institute, the loaner, has to protect their risk. But this is a mere smoke screen for extortion.

What of gambling (or its well-dressed cousin, “gaming”)? We provide for casinos to be set up on Native American property, as if this is some sort of national reconciliatory concession. Do we think native peoples would somehow be helped by legalizing an instrument of economic predation in their backyard? Of course, location is not so much of an issue anymore, as we’ve now flung the doors wide open for online gambling. Tell me, are we helping the poor by putting a portal to financial ruin in their pockets?

I recognize that there is a fine line between being conscientious and being patronizing. People do have a right to make stupid decisions and suffer the consequences. Companies, on the other hand, have an obligation to care for the people behind their profits. God tells us that those who build their bank on the backs of the poor will have to answer to Him (Isa. 3:14-15).

Equality... How?

Another form of robbery is becoming increasingly accepted in our society, and is often even commended. We see this most clearly in those whom I will call “equality vigilantes.” These are the gatekeepers of institutions who take equality into their own hands. Adjectives like “advanced, enriched, and gifted” become little better than slurs. Equality vigilantes cry that inequality at any level is unacceptable. Wishing to play God, they call for or implement “the right policies” that will put everyone on the same level.

We should care for the bottom twenty percent. We should always be seeking to lift others up, and to provide avenues of escape for those stuck in traps and cycles of poverty, disadvantage, etc. But that is a much different matter than to claim that differences in performance or intelligence are themselves injustices to be rectified.

Imagine that Bill collects five apples and Joe collects eight. Is it any help to Bill if I take three apples from Joe? This is an oversimplification, but it remains a timeless truth. If flat equality of outcome is the goal, the fastest and surest way to achieve my goal is to level everyone down. I have thereby helped no one, except perhaps psychologically—and even then, only in the short term.

The idea of merit has fallen on hard times. In one sense, merit’s criticism is rightly earned, for “What do you have that you did not receive?” (I Cor 4:7). If you press the case back far enough, none of use truly “earn” anything. The biggest, most influential factors in our lives—including the circumstances around our birth into this world—are things we can clearly perceive have been given to us.

We should acknowledge differences, advantages, and imbalances, and strive to help those who are less fortunate. But we should not consider inequality an inherent obscenity. It is a base sort of spirit who says: “Because everyone [or, more often, because I ] cannot enjoy that, no one should.” A better spirit thanks God for every good gift, whether for oneself or for one’s neighbor.

Read previous articles in this series here.

Justin Poythress (MDiv, WTS) is Assistant Pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Fort Myers, FL. He blogs regularly at Time & Chance.