Q. Statistics show a growing gap between incomes of rich and poor. Is this an ethical problem?
A. Economists like to measure economic performance in terms of two variables: efficiency and equity. Efficiency refers to how much wealth the economy produces; equity to how fairly this wealth is distributed. These concerns are in conformity with Jewish tradition. Material well-being is considered a blessing, whether it accrues to the rich or the poor. And fairness in economic life is an overriding concern in the Torah as well as the prophets. Countless commandments of the Torah and exhortations of the prophets teach us to protect the weak, especially the poor, against exploitation and predation by the wealthy and strong. The Psalmist urges: “Judge the poor and the orphan; vindicate the oppressed and deprived. Deliver the poor and the needy; save them from the hand of the wicked” (Psalms 82:3-4).
Economists often measure equity in terms of relative equality, in particularly income equality. One common benchmark is the Gini coefficient which measures how far incomes are from an “ideal” of perfect equality; another is to examine the ratio of the incomes of the richest households (usually the top fifth) to that of the poorest. These statistical measures do indeed show increasing polarization.
Equality is a value in Jewish tradition as well. Many commandments come to create a degree of equality among the different segments of the population. For example, among the Ten Commandments is the requirement to keep the Sabbath: “Don’t do any work, you and your son and your daughter and your man-servant and your maid-servant” (Exodus 19:10). All must enjoy equally the rest of the Sabbath day. And in addition to the Sabbath day we have the Sabbatical year: “And the Sabbath of the land shall be food for you: you, and your man-servant, and your maid-servant, and for your hired servant and the sojourner who dwells with you” (Leviticus 25:6). Again, we find that all are ultimately equal in the produce of the land.
Here is another example: The Torah commands us to free indentured servants after six years of service, and then to give him a generous “severance bonus” which will enable him to get a start in supporting himself. However, the Torah also allows a servant to continue on, because “it is good for him by you” (Deuteronomy 15:16). Our Sages inferred that it is the master’s responsibility to make sure that conditions are good for the servant, to the extent that his basic living conditions should be identical to those of the master! (1)
And the Shulchan Arukh, the Code of Jewish Law, writes that while we are only required to help the poor person according to their accustomed standard, the ideal is to provide for them according to the standard of the giver: “One who wants to attain merit should overcome his accumulative inclination and broaden his hand; and everything done for the sake of heaven should be from the best and most beautiful. . . If he gives the hungry food, he should feed them from the best and sweetest things on his table; if he covers the naked, he should cover them from the best of his clothes.” (2)
Even so, equality of income, or even of consumption, is not the central concern in Jewish tradition. Even the examples above show that equality is not an overarching concern. One day in seven, and one year in seven, we make significant gestures of equality; likewise, we make a special effort to create equality in the case of an indentured servant whose subordinate status is so prominent. The citation from the Shulchan Arukh is not a requirement but only an expression of an ideal standard which we may aspire to.
Equity in Judaism is much more connected to the process than to the result. We have pointed out in many previous columns that the foremost consideration is the human element in economic transactions. The central concern is for an equal human relationship between the parties, rather than an equal share of economic wealth.
Equity, or fairness, is an insistent demand in Jewish tradition, and is much more important than wealth per se. But fairness can not be gauged by looking at outcomes alone; it is even more important to consider the actual conduct of economic life.
(1) Rambam Avadim 1:9.
(2) Shulchan Arukh Yoreh Deah 248:8