Inequality and the Pursuit of Happiness

Franklin I. Gamwell
Hyde Park Union Church

Suppose there’s a Sunday School class of four and five year olds, and I walk into the room. Think how the average age of people in the room jumps, even though none of the children is a day older. Or, better: Suppose it’s Friday night in an American middle-class neighborhood. The local bar is crowded. In walks Bill Gates. Think how the average income of people in the bar escalates, even though none of the local patrons has received a salary raise.1 Something like that happened in our economy in the three decades prior to the collapse last Autumn. During those decades, average income in the United States—roughly, total income divided by the number of workers—grew about 50%. This is real growth, after correcting for inflation; the average income really became half again what it was little more than a generation before. But the income of most Americans increased hardly at all, and the progress for middle and lower class households came mostly because they worked longer hours. Some 80% of all real economic gains since the later 1970s have gone to the rich, the top 20% of households, and especially the very rich: Some 40% of all gains have gone to the top 1% of society.2


That dramatic disparity signals the escalating inequality of income stretching over this period. Moreover, this widening gap completely erased an impressive achievement that occurred during the middle twentieth century. For 30 years after World War II, income distribution in America moved toward greater equality, and the gap between rich and poor shrank to the smallest in our nation’s history. That advance came to an abrupt halt in the mid-70s, and ever since we have marched relentlessly in the reverse direction. The breach has widened not only back to but also far beyond the inequality we suffered prior to the post-War reduction. While it is not exactly true that most Americans have stood still for three decades, their gains are sufficiently slight that, like the turtle, movement is not easily detected. In contrast, there’s no question about mega-gains for the rich. So, in real terms, average income in the lowest 20% of households maybe grew some 6% between these years (less than one quarter of one percent per year); middle-income households maybe saw an 15—20% increase (well less than one percent per year). But figures for the very rich are staggering: The top 1% enjoyed real gains of more than 150%—and the richest of the rich, the top one-tenth of one percent, one in a thousand, enjoyed gains of something like 500%; they are five times richer than they were in the 1970s.

Indeed, our distributional gap is in fact multiple gaps. It’s like blowing up one of those hot dog shaped balloons: The middle has pulled away from the bottom, and the top has pulled away from both. And the tippy top is no longer in sight. As if this were not enough, figures for income distribution in fact understate the matter, because the distribution of wealth, especially in real estate and stocks is even more unequal. Of course, numbers or statistics always depend on who’s counting. But, in fact, no one really contests the general pattern of increasing inequality. Nor is there serious dissent from this: Our inequality is unsurpassed in the industrialized world. Since 1979, a major study by the respected Economic Policy Institute concluded, our economy “has consistently produced the highest levels of . . . inequality,” and the difference with other countries “has shown a strong tendency to rise.” 3

Moreover, this same study shows, poverty in our country is more pervasive and mobility out of poverty more limited than any of 18 other industrialized nations. Compared to them, the U. S. also spends the least portion of its total economic product—its GNP, so called—on social services for the poor, and among these countries, there is generally a reverse connection between social service spending and the amount of poverty. Like the ends of a see-saw, the countries where social service spending is higher have lower rates of poverty. By our own government’s official standard, poverty in this country fell by half between the early 1950s and the early 1970s. 11.1% of our people were poor in 1973. Never since has the figure been so low. It stood at 12.6% in 2005. And the poor have also become more deeply poor. In the mid-1970s, some 28% were below one-half the poverty line; in 2005, this figure was over 40%.

Now, most of us know how a problem near the center of life can invade other things we do. If there is trouble at home, things at work or at school, even our time for play and relaxation, can be upset. Just so, the inequities of our income distribution are connected to many other issues. Poverty is exhibit number one. There seems little question that growth in income inequality has been the principal force driving people into poverty and deeper into poverty. But consider also the effect on our political process. Because political campaigns are privately funded, massive inequality magnifies the electoral clout of the wealthy—and this may be especially true in state and local politics. Or, again, take public education. We still support our schools largely through property taxes at the local level, and everyone sees the result if we compare funding in well-to-do suburban districts with inner city and rural schools. As inequality escalates, and most Americans see little or no salary advance, the desirable school districts tend to become even more expensive to live in—and fewer in number. Something similar happens in health care. With advancing technology, health care insurance becomes more expensive; some employers decide they can provide it no longer, and workers, who are basically treading water, cannot afford it themselves—so, the ranks of the uninsured or underinsured grow. Finally, note the affect of inequality on the administration of criminal justice. Corruption in the system, which mostly harms the poor, is abetted by indifference from many rich and very rich, who are concerned only that “law and order” protect them in their segregated, sometimes literally gated communities.

But if our inflating inequality spreads trouble elsewhere in our common life, it is also, I believe, a profound problem unto itself—quite apart from its affects on other threads in our social fabric. Prior to the Civil War, you will recall, our public life sought time and again to resolve other issues that were side-effects of a nation half slave and half free—for instance, which Western territories should be reserved for free labor, or how to legislate treatment of fugitive slaves, or whether a transcontinental railroad should take a northern or southern route. But real as these other issues were, the country for too long denied that slavery itself was the bigger issue, quite apart from its byproducts. Today, our widening gap receives all too little public attention. Yes, who wins and who loses economically is the daily stuff of political struggle among corporations, workers, and differing regions of the country. For all that, however, our public discourse has been all too silent about the yawning income disparity itself. But those who believe in God, at least if the God in whom they believe is the God in whom Christians believe, have every reason to see injustice here—and please grant me some patience as I seek to say why.


We see injustice because the God Christians experience through Jesus is all-embracing love, who calls us all to love God with all our hearts and souls and minds and strength, and so to love all that God loves, all our neighbors, as ourselves. And if this is our faith, we cannot believe that only Christians experience this God. To the contrary, God’s love for all compels God’s presence to all. When we Christians say “only through Jesus,” we do not say, on my view, that God is present only through Jesus. We say that the only God who can ever be present is the God we see through Jesus. But this God is present everywhere, is every person’s constant companion. Now, mark what this means: It means that we all experience the call to love one another. In other words, we are all commonly called to live for one another, commonly called to create a community of love—or, as Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us to say, a beloved community. This common calling, moreover, comes to us precisely because God loves us all; so, it comes not as a burden but a gift. We are summoned to love one another because God wishes all people to have a good life.

Here, the meaning of “a good life” is not confined to being a moral person; having a good life is not just a matter of doing one’s duty, however important virtue may be. God wills for each a good life in the sense of a flourishing life; God wishes for each a happy life, in the best sense of the term. True happiness is a full life, a flourishing life—a good life in the sense that loving parents wish a good life for their children. And since God’s wish for our happiness calls us to become a beloved community, here’s the point: Human flourishing depends on mutuality. Each is fulfilled when both the beneficiary and the benefactor of all others, each receiving from the achievements of others and directing her or his achievement to the good of all.

Human unity, William Sloane Coffin once said, is not something we are called to create, only to recognize. In the pursuit of happiness, we are decidedly all in this together; we can only have it by depending on and doing for each other. So, a true vision of one’s own flourishing, while not confined to being a moral person, is surely inseparable from a moral commitment, namely, a commitment to mutuality and thus to the happiness of all—rather like each musician in a symphonic performance cannot reach her or his best without aiming at greatness for the whole.

We all know how much we owe to families, teachers, close friends—but these do not exhaust our mutuality. Like circles within circles, the communities on which we rely reach through intimates to neighborhoods and various voluntary organizations to institutions of work and culture and encompassing social structures. Mutuality imprisoned is mutuality impoverished. In sum, the larger social patterns should provide or promote the general background for interaction closer to home, so that, through both, the good life for all is advanced—and our common life then becomes a diversity of associations, orchestrated in a way that maximizes our mutual flourishing.

That brings us to justice—because justice concerns the most general setting for our life together. What the musical score is to that great symphony, justice is to our mutuality—and justice is the business of politics. Principles of justice, we can say, define mutuality in the measure rightly provided or promoted by government; justice assigns to politics its part in the beloved community. And since the point is flourishing through harmony with each other, justice can only mean laws and policies aimed at giving everyone access to participation—affording everyone the material, social, and political sources that empower each to enhance her or his communities. I have in mind sources of achievement like safety and security and self-respect, material goods and opportunity to work, education, environmental and cultural integrity, and a rewarding pattern of human relationships, including democratic participation. In a word, the overall principle of justice is this: Maximize the general sources of empowerment that are equally available to all. Insofar as those sources are accessible to all, our common life achieves the common good, and when the common good is maximized, politics has done what it can to advance happiness through mutuality.

The point is not complete sameness of results—as if everyone should have exactly the same income, the same level of education, and so forth; all inequality is not inequity. Some disparity may be allowed, even required, because thereby the general empowerment of all is increased. Wisdom and experience counsel, for instance, that everyone will benefit if differing financial rewards follow in some degree differences in responsibility and initiative. But here’s the basic principle: Unequal access to general sources of empowerment should stretch only so far as needed to improve the opportunity enjoyed by all. Justice calls us to maximize the access equally available. So, for instance, if everyone can have a high school education and some in the society might also go on to college or graduate school, then a high school degree is the measure of education equally available—and justice means that disparity in educational opportunity or economic resources should always be in service of enlarging the common good equally available. Ideally, we should let some move farther than the rest only insofar as this helps everyone advance.

Now, if this is the standard by which our income distribution should be tested, is it not obvious that something in our economic life is thoroughly amiss? Given the gap between rich and poor, the measure of income and wealth now equally available to all is somewhere below the official poverty line—and the massive inequality stretching to the richest of the rich is not in service to raising everyone’s opportunity but, rather, solely for the luxurious self-interest of the few. To be sure, some argue that we need our economic disparity because such concentrated wealth will work in the long run to the benefit of all. Culture is refined because the rich pursue it; educational and social innovation results from philanthropy; and above all, investments by the rich fuel economic growth—so the argument goes. Distributional inequality is, on this view, the price we pay for the progress and prosperity through which the empowerment of all is extended. Something like that argument, I think, helped shape public policy during the George W. Bush presidency and, perhaps most notably, was largely responsible for federal tax cuts during his administration that were especially favorable to the rich.

But this defense of our distributional gap—that somehow in the end it helps to empower everyone—is, so far as I can see, sheer sophistry, smoke and mirrors. It was likely discredited by the collapse in our economy during the past year, a deep recession brought on in part, many argue, by the very inequality the Bush tax cuts reinforced. No matter. Quite beyond the events of the past twelve months, even if the collapse never happened, the argument for our vast income inequality seems hopeless. As we noted earlier, severe income disparity breeds other social and political inequities that cheat people of the chance to flourish and thereby impoverish our mutuality: It heightens injustice in political power, educational funding, and treatment by the criminal justice system. Moreover, careful attempts to assess what some call “social health,” which survey a range of factors such as high school completions, youth homicide, health-care coverage, and the like, “have shown a more or less steady decline from the high-water marks of the 1970s”^4^—that is, so-called social health has been declining over the very period the distributional gap has been expanding. In any case, a brief defending this gap as good for all is bound to show why this supposed good has needed three decades of spreading inequality—and, further, how the lower 60% have been served by virtually stagnant income while the upper 20% and especially the very rich have reaped almost all of the increased harvest. With respect to what social benefits, we may ask, has greater access for all required this unrivaled discrepancy?

So far as I can see, then, Christians and all others who worship the God of all-embracing love and so affirm God’s call to a community of love have every reason to condemn this inequity. The widening gap is an offense to the beloved community. Still, mere condemnation is not enough. We are also called insofar as we are able to seek change—and the first step in effective action is clarity about why the offense continues. I am not an economist and cannot speak with any wisdom about specific economic dynamics. But the background of our current problem, I am persuaded, includes a religious issue, and my intent here is to reveal its presence. Reversing our income inequity, I hope to show, demands attention to differing religious beliefs expressed in our common life.


In this context, “religious beliefs” are not confined to those faith traditions typically taken to be religious—Islamic or Jewish or Christian traditions, for instance. When it comes to our life together, we should include as “religious” any belief about the ultimate or overall purpose of the human community and, thereby, any belief about what makes a human life truly happy. So, a religious belief might be completely this-worldly or secularistic because it denies any God or anything beyond the world, through which we and our common life are given meaning. Religious differences are present among us, we can say, whenever we find differing ideals for the human community, differing beliefs about its overall point, and thus differing views of how we flourish.

On my accounting, one such ideal, profoundly at odds with the beloved community, weighs heavily against any robust attempt to reverse our widening gap, and I wish to highlight what this ideal affirms and why it makes for a religious problem. For want of another word, I will call it the liberal ideal for our common life. Of course, the name “liberal” is notoriously vague; so, I need to be clear what it means here—and I should perhaps caution that my meaning diverges somewhat from common usage. For the liberal view, the point of our life together is not mutuality but, rather, private interests. Happiness for any given person is a matter of satisfying her or his wants, and the larger community should be designed as a servant to whatever goals individuals prefer. Perhaps each person’s goals must be reigned in by the rights of others to pursue theirs. Still, the highest social purpose is providing ways and means for satisfying whatever wants various individuals choose—and the more an individual’s wants are satisfied, the more she or he enjoys a flourishing life.

As you can see, this account gives “liberal” a broad meaning, so that liberalism appears, in effect, with two faces. In one expression, liberals urge that government should be minimal, confined to protecting liberty and leaving the free market alone, and these liberals are sometimes called libertarians. Other liberals, once called New Deal liberals, advocate a welfare state and, therefore, a more active government, which guarantees that people do not fall below a floor of resources and services. This difference has been the heart of much political contention during the past century or more—but it is, in fact, a family quarrel, because liberals with either face believe that private interests define what human life is all about. Whether government should be minimal or should insure a floor of support, the reason for having resources is to satisfy wants, and thus social and political structures should be servants of the multifarious preferences of individual persons. For all liberals, we might suppose, community is seen as a great collection of people moving hither and yon on a complex pattern of roadways. Together, we need some rules of the road, and we have a common interest in making and serving vehicles that hasten travel. But the social pattern is itself indifferent to where any given individual is going, and the system of movements is a good one if it helps each to approach her or his preferred destination.

Because liberals see happiness in this way, they have long affirmed economic institutions and goals as supreme within our social order. Economic activity, after all, produces goods and services to satisfy, as we say, consumer preferences—and since wants or preferences define the good life, both libertarian and welfare liberals have typically urged that material prosperity and economic growth are the whole point of our life together, subject only to constraints of national defense and some rules of fairness. Something like this belief has probably dominated our national life ever since the Union prevailed in the Civil War, setting the stage for dramatic industrial development in the later nineteenth century. If the founding document we celebrated yesterday declared inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the most prevalent view of its meaning during the past 150 years has been freedom to acquire material goods in pursuit of whatever one elects to be enjoyable—and the power of this ideal over those seven score years and ten provides, I believe, the religious background for our evolution into what some call a “consumer society.” And the primacy of economic goals has reinforced the liberal ideal. Economic advance has made enormous contributions to human life, and we should never minimize how fortunate most of us are to be its heirs. But its benefits, and the great corporations that profit from producing them, have also insidiously persuaded Americans that happiness is defined mostly by enjoying more and more of those very material benefits.

In any event, the presence and power of this liberal ideal, I believe, obstructs any effort to reverse our widening gap—and here’s why: The liberal view of happiness tends to banish moral principle from our political life. The truth is this: Making private preferences the overall aim of society says nothing about whose interests should be served; that aim is devoid of any principle for distributing benefits. Indeed, if flourishing means satisfying wants, this gives no reason why another person’s wants should matter to me; it is, in fact, morally vacuous. The only counsel given by this view of happiness is that each should focus on what we call, in a telling use of terms, her or his own “standard of living.” So each household is led to focus on the material resources it commands, if need be at the expense of others. Barring a threat to basic health and safety, citizens captive to this conception of the good life are most concerned with how state policy affects their own financial standing, and politics becomes another arena for economic competition and trade-offs.

When politics is robbed of any persuasive moral appeal, the sheer economic power of the rich becomes all the more controlling and economic inequality becomes entrenched. On my reading, something like this has occurred in United States politics in the past thirty years. Prior to President’s Obama’s election, an ideology favoring the rich was dominant, and advocates for welfare policies that might provide some relief for the poor were, on the whole, impotent. And this drift was aided because those welfare liberals, who at least seek support at the lower levels of distribution, undercut themselves—they walk, as it were, on banana peels. Since they, too, measure the good life by private interests satisfied, they surrender any vision of the good community that would give persuasive moral power to their appeal.

Indeed, no one, rich or poor, who defines flourishing by wants fulfilled has reason to call income inequality itself an issue, because what matters most to each household is not what others have but, rather, its own level of economic rewards. Perhaps some force should be conceded to sentiments of envy. For the less advantaged, however, the really important comparison politically is not to the more advantaged but, rather, to their own previous condition. Has there been increase over what one had before? For this reason, the principal political concern is economic growth from which all get something, however uneven the shares. A rising tide that raises all ships is sufficient to prevent discord over the widening gap, even if some are rowboats and some are yachts, just because the liberal ideal is so pervasively believed.

I concede that much more should be said to make this account of our situation convincing. But assuming some rough clarity on how the liberal view of happiness gives aid and comfort to economic inequality, I wish to conclude by underscoring the religious issue we face. Pursued to its conclusion, the liberal ideal typically defines a thoroughly this-worldly or secularistic religious belief. There is no transcendent reference. To make our social order the servant of private interests is to imply that life has no meaning presented with the creation itself, no point given in the nature of things, and so people find good only in the wants they give to themselves. In contrast, Christians and others who embrace God’s community of love will see our mounting disparity of income as justice betrayed. The point is not simply that some people lack basic welfare. That fault could be corrected and our present distributional patterns remain deeply unjust because God calls us to maximize our mutuality—to see the happiness of each found in being both a beneficiary and benefactor of the happiness of others, so that we truly flourish only with each other, and we are called to maximize the general sources of empowerment equally available to all.

Liberals are surely right in this respect: Most forms of human achievement wait on material supports and thus on economic resources. But the point of economic goods lies beyond themselves. Let’s say it this way: The liberal view of happiness relates us to each other for the sake of our relations to things, while for Christians the order is turned over: our relations to things are meant to serve our relations to each other.

Those committed to this divine purpose have reason to make common cause on particular problems—such as tax cuts that benefit the rich or persistent and callous neglect of the poor—with fellow citizens who reach similar positions for differing reasons. But the public lacks the will to halt and reverse the widening gap partly because citizens pervasively adhere to a false religious ideal. So far as I can see, then, Christians and any others who seek the community of love cannot evade this fundamental challenge: A new religious background is prerequisite to economic justice. Christians and all others for whom we flourish or fall together are called on fitting occasions to denounce the liberal religious ideal of want satisfaction and to advocate in public the beloved community. In itself, that witness will not transform the public order. But if answers to the religious question have their part to play in politics, then our common life will be wanting without those who petition “the better angels of our nature.”

Ray Charles sang it best:

America, America
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness
And every gain divine.

  1. The latter illustration is borrowed from Paul Krugman, The Conscience of a Liberal (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009), 125.
  2. Most statistics in this article are indebted to the following publications of the Economic Policy Institute: Lawrence Mishel, et. al., The State of Working America 2000/2001 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001); Lawrence Mishel, et. al., The State of Working America 2002/2003 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003), and Lawrence Mishel, et. al., The State of Working America 2006/2007 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007). Some material in the article is also indebted to Krugman, The Conscience of a Liberal; Kevin Phillips, Wealth and Democracy: A Political History of the American Rich (New York: Broadway Books, 2002); and Arloc Sherman, “Income Inequality Hits Record Levels, New CBO Data Show,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, online:, 12-14-07.
  3. Mishel, et. al., State of Working America 2000/2001, 396.
  4. Phillips, Wealth and Democracy, 167.

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