economics · philosophy · politics

Inequality and the problem of evil

Perhaps one of the greatest difficulties in Christian doctrine is the problem of evil. Why is there any evil in the world, the challenge goes, if the Christian god is infinitely good, omnipotent and omniscient. Before the Second World War, the answer might have been a relativisation: there is no true evil in the world, only personal setbacks that challenge our courage and thereby allow us to prove ourselves to the Christian god. After the Second World War and in particular the holocaust, this position seems untenable. Unless you choose to deny the entire event, of course.

The problem of evil is, in fact, such a problem that it forms the main line of attack on religion for some. Look for instance to Stephen Law, who came up with an evil god as an alternative explanation to existence. Of course, the real reason for coming up with evil god is to show that anything that is traditionally explained as good, can also be explained as an evil creation of evil god. To give an example, Law claims that evil god made children so adorable and lovable so that we are hurt more when they suffer or the the evil god taketh them away. Thus, the evil god constructed our universe for the sole purpose of human suffering and misery. This leads to the conclusion that either explanation is equally valid, thereby invalidating both explanations.

Neoliberalism, in my opinion, faces a similar problem as religion: the problem of inequality. The basic argument of neoliberalism is both simple and elegant, which is maybe the reason for its attractiveness. According to the theory, any market exchange of commodities leads to an increase of “utility”. You only buy things you need or want, while you only sell something you want to get rid of or don’t need. Both parties involved in a market exchange therefore gain something by it, and this gain is expressed by the term “utility”. (I’ve always found it odd that a theory about the greediest and crassest materialism relies, at its core, upon some nonmaterial quantity, but that’s a whole other story.)

The market therefore facaliltates goodness and cannot create evil. The economy, the aggregate of markets, acts like the Christian god: it creates only good and does so for everyone. However, if this is true, where does inequality (social, economic or otherwise) come from? The classical dismissive answer one can expect is also a relativisation: there is no true inequality in western countries that have a mature neoliberal economy, even those who are considered poor have decent lives with cable tv and cheap beer. However, this answer is not sufficient, because inequality is also increasing across the globe, and most notably in the US. Inequality in the US is currently worse than it was in apartheid South-Africa. If the neoliberal economy is a source of gain for everyone, why does inequality increase?

Perhaps Law’s strategy works here as well. An evil economist might suppose that in every market exchange the “utility” is decreased. The seller sells his goods too expensive and takes a large profit margin on his commodity. The buyer therefore pays more than the commodity is actually worth, leading to an unequal exchange. The evil economy¬†causes much evil. Those who sell their goods on the market amass and accumulate great wealth, while the rest pays for this and is left to scrape out a wretched existence. Thus, the evil economy causes great amounts of material resources and money flow from the poor to the rich, increasing inequality. However, unlike the problem of evil in religion, the two explanations of market exchange are not equally valid. Indeed, the evil market explanation is much closer to the observable reality around us!

Nonetheless, social and economic inequality plays the same role for capitalism, and in particular neoliberalism, as does the problem of evil for Christianity. In both cases, the “theory” predicts generally or exclusively good outcomes, while reality shows a staggering amount of pain and suffering. In both cases, the challenge isn’t so easy to dismiss and remains a serious issue for believers. To me, this shows that neoliberalism is as much made up of religious dogma as is Christianity. Both exhibit unreasonable beliefs in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.










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