Fair’s fair but not necessarily equal

April 1, 2009

Oamaru clergy were asked to respond to the view of an Auckland minister who said it was alright to steal if you were hungry.

None of them agreed, and the response that I remember best was from a vicar who said:

“I come from South Africa where being poor means hundreds of people share one cold water tap. In Oamaru I watch people drive their cars to the foodbank.”

That is the difference between relative poverty and absolute poverty and I’m with Macdoctor who says it’s the latter that matters and takes us to the Land of Zork  to explain the difference.

The easiest way to get equality of wealth is to make the rich poorer. All that would do is reduce net wealth and create a downward spiral: people would lose one of the incentives for productivity if they weren’ t being rewarded for it and like the wealthy people of Zork, at least some would go to other places where they were able to keep more of what they earn.

There isn’t a fair way to make everyone equally wealthy, or even nearly equal. The best we can do is aim for equality of opportunity, rather than outcome by addressing the factors which lead to lower earning capacity.

That means helping some people more because they start at a disadvantage. Children who get to school without knowing how to hold a pencil or a book and with a poor grasp of language will need a lot more help than those who start school able to draw, knowing that reading is fun and with a good vocabulary.

The conundrum is how to ensure everyone gets equal opportunity without requiring anyone to pay an unfair amount towards it.

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