I have been noticing a trend in recent discussions of income inequality. Commentators have started replacing income inequality with income inequity. At first, I thought this subtle shift was a result of ignorance. In our word-impoverished culture, the right words get swapped for incorrect similar-sounding ones all the time (e.g., “disinterested” for “uninterested”).
But as this trend toward using income inequity grows, I begin to think the subtle shift in language is intentional. There is actually quite a difference between the two. Consider these opening paragraphs from a Bloomberg article:
The U.S. won’t put a dent into poverty and income inequity unless Democrats and Republicans can agree to raise taxes on top earners like hedge-fund and private equity managers, President Barack Obama said Tuesday.
Obama, whose longstanding proposal to raise taxes on what is known as carried interest has gained little traction in Congress, said fairness demands that the nation’s wealthiest pitch in as more and more Americans are falling behind.
“If I were able to close that loophole, I’d be able to invest in early childhood education,” Obama said at a poverty summit at Georgetown University in Washington. “If we can’t ask from society’s lottery winners to make that modest investment, then really this conversation is for show.”
Did you catch that? The author may be following Obama’s talking points, but she agrees with them in her language. Inequality is about difference. Inequity is about justice and fairness. She uses that very word in the second paragraph: fairness.
But Obama’s quotation really clenches it for me: wealthy Americans are the nation’s lottery winners. So, with a few strokes of altered language, Obama and his ideological compatriots have turned the wealthiest Americans into an accidental aristocracy whose unequal wealth is an injustice to be rectified.
Let me be clear on this. This rhetoric works. People would love to think that wealth is accidental. Because it means they could accidentally get wealth. It also means their lack of means is not their own fault. But people love it even more when you tell them that someone else’s wealth is unjust. “Yes, if it is unfair for them to have that wealth, it should be taken from them and given to me. And since they didn’t do anything to earn that wealth, it’s not really stealing, is it?”
Yes, it is. The two greatest lies of so-called income inequity need to be laid to rest. First, wealth is the result of real labor, investment, and risk the vast majority of the time. It rarely, if ever, comes by chance. And when it does, it tends to leave as quickly as it came. Just look at actual lottery winners if you want some evidence of this. Second, income inequality is not unjust. Theft, on the other hand, is quite unjust. We seem to have forgotten that in our word-bending covetousness.