Pope Francis smiles as he leaves Rome's Jesus' Church to...

Pope Francis smiles as he leaves Rome's Jesus' Church to celebrate a mass with the Jesuits. (Jan. 3, 2014) Credit: AP

Lant Pritchett, a colleague of mine at the Harvard Kennedy School, recently took the pope to task. He said that the pope's preoccupation with inequality promotes the sin of envy and that inequality, in itself, is of no great account: "Poverty matters; injustice matters. Mere inequality is beside the point."

Neither of these criticisms makes much sense to me.

Inequality indeed matters in its own right, at least according to one prominent strand of modern political philosophy. John Rawls argued that economic inequality is usually a kind of injustice. Economic inequalities are just, he said, only if arrangements providing for greater equality would leave the poorest people in society even worse off.

Rawls argued that citizens would willingly embrace this principle if they reasoned behind a "veil of ignorance" -- without knowledge of their age, race, gender, intelligence and so on. In this "original position," citizens would care most about the interests of the least advantaged, because any citizen might turn out to be among them. Such reasoning may seem artificial, but Rawls asks us to reflect on what we mean by a just society. A just society is a fair society, he argued, and thinking about fairness obliges us to avoid self-serving bias by abstracting from all the specific things we know about ourselves.

Could rising inequality in the U.S., or in the world as a whole, be justified in Rawlsian terms? Can the poor seriously be told, this is the best that can be done for you? The idea is ridiculous. Bear in mind, this perspective on economic justice was developed with great care and has been enormously influential among serious thinkers on the subject: If Pritchett thinks it's mistaken, he perhaps should say why.

But let's suppose for the sake of argument that it is mistaken. Suppose economic inequality isn't, in and of itself, an injustice. Even in that case, it wouldn't be beside the point. For one thing, economic inequality causes injustice even if it doesn't constitute injustice.

Economic power is inseparable from political power. Formally, in the U.S., we are all political equals: Each of us has one vote and the same protections under the law. But the rich can use their money to promote their views and their preferred candidates. We tolerate this disparity, but only up to a point. In principle, our notion of justice imposes limits on the extent of political inequality; and in practice, it would be hard to deny that political inequality (bred by economic inequality) has had a corrosive effect on U.S. politics.

Bank executives who bear responsibility for crippling the U.S. economy through reckless negligence or worse have been deemed too important to be brought to trial. That is at least partly a consequence of their economic and hence political standing.

Elected officials, it seems, spend more time raising money than governing -- and when they turn their attention to public policy, the economic interests of the rich and powerful carry disproportionate weight.

One might answer, in the spirit of Pritchett, that the problem isn't the distribution of income but the system that allows money to have such influence. Maybe so -- but as a practical matter, this is a distinction without a difference. In the system we have, and in any system that one may plausibly imagine, money will exert political influence, and economic inequality will by that token fuel injustice.

Pritchett doesn't just argue that inequality is unworthy of concern. He criticizes the pope for drawing attention to it. The effect, he says, is to promote envy. Characterizing complaints about economic inequality as "the politics of envy" has tradition on its side, I suppose. The idea is anything but novel; it just isn't very persuasive.

I doubt that envy of the rich has much if anything to do with complaints about rising inequality -- but again for the sake of argument, let's assume that talking about the subject does arouse envious feelings. Does this make it wrong to raise the subject? Of course not. The prospect that we might fail morally in our response to a possible injustice is something to be aware of and guard against -- but it shouldn't forbid us to consider the injustice in the first place.

In a racist society governed by segregationist laws, leaders who speak out for reform might inspire some people to morally indefensible violence. But if the leaders don't call for violence -- if they urge their followers to protest peacefully - - they can't properly be accused of promoting violence. In drawing attention to economic inequality, the pope doesn't call for people to resent the rich, and, as Pritchett emphasizes, the church teaches that envy is wrong. In no reasonable sense is this "promoting envy."

Needless inequality is injustice; economic inequality breeds political inequality, which is further injustice; complaining about injustice is morally proper. With or without God on his side, the pope is right, and Pritchett is far from infallible.

Christopher Robichaud is a lecturer in ethics and public policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

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