In his marvelously concise and helpful book, The Law, Frederick Bastiat (1801-1850) quotes his fellow French philosopher with whom he disagrees, Étienne Bonnot de Condillac (1715-1780):
Impartiality in law consists in two things: in establishing equality in the fortunes and in the dignity of the citizens… In proportion to the degree of equality established by the laws, the dearer will they become to every citizen… How can avarice, ambition, dissipation, idleness, sloth, envy, hatred, or jealousy agitate men who are equal in fortune and dignity, and to whom the laws leave no hope of disturbing their equality?
Can equality of fortunes and dignity be legislated? Should governments even attempt such manipulation of their citizens? Bastiat says absolutely not because doing so results in oppression and tyranny. His response got me thinking. What follows is an attempt to broach the subject of equality of dignity and fortune and to provide material to help the reader think it through more thoroughly.
Dignity amongst human beings appears to arise out of performing hard work that is productive and benefits both the producer and his fellow human beings, with the result that the worker earns a fair and deserved wage, that he feels good about himself, and that his work permits him to provide food, clothing, and a roof over his head. Thus the worker is his own master, independent of others, and standing alone to an extent.
[By describing work that “earns a fair and deserved wage,” I do not mean to exclude from having dignity those who work hard but receive no monetary wage, for example, homemakers and mothers, whose hard work is productive and certainly benefits others. In this article, however, with de Condillac’s and Bastiat’s thoughts in mind, I am focusing on “work” in economic terms. Dignity belongs to anyone who faithfully fulfills the job God has given him or her to do, whether or not that job results in being paid.]
Obviously, a person depends on others to benefit from and value his work so that they are willing to pay him for it. And in an efficient society, he depends on others’ producing things he wants and can use to sustain his own well-being (food, clothing, etc.). Dignity, therefore, is not found in being completely independent of others. Rather a person’s dignity lies in being independent to the extent God’s design of him and God’s provision of his immediate circumstances permit him. This implies the need for liberty and freedom to discover his design and circumstances, which will be different for every human being. This also implies the need for protection from those who would take away a person’s freedom, especially those who have the most power to take away his freedom—that is, government legislators, who in our country are commissioned with the responsibility to protect a person’s freedom. The proper use of the law is to punish criminals and to prevent those who make the laws from intruding upon the independence and freedom of those whom they govern. Only then can the governed pursue the dignity that arises from earning a living.
Apart from work, however, there is another way that a human being can become equal in dignity with others: he can treat them and be treated by them morally well. Even in times of leisure or inability to work, therefore, people can and should be equal in dignity with others by acting with goodness towards one another. Thus they respect each other’s humanness and the fact they are all created by God in His image.
We have seen, then, that equality of dignity is attainable. Is equality of fortune also attainable?
A human being can become equal in fortune with other human beings in at least three ways: (1) by equal wage—working hard and earning as much money as everyone else according to what he deserves; (2) by charity—having other individuals freely give to him if he has less than they; and (3) by government intervention—being subsidized by the government, the strongest force in our society, which has the power to legislate taking from those who have more and giving to those who have less. Regarding equal wage, does it make sense that everyone deserves the same wage? No, because clearly we distinguish a difference in value between one kind of work and another. Which is more valuable: piloting an airplane so that the passengers arrive safely at their destination or serving them coffee and water so that they do not arrive thirsty? Both jobs are valuable, but clearly the first is more valuable than the second. Regarding charity, are the rich biblically and morally obligated to give to all those who have less in order to equalize everyone’s fortune? No, the Bible allows for differences in fortunes while promoting equality in dignity, which comes from earning a fair wage for hard work at whatever skill level God has designed a person to have and through people relating to each other with goodness. Finally regarding government intervention, does it make sense that the government take from the rich to give to the poor as a means for the poor to acquire equal fortunes? No, because except in extreme cases, giving money to the poor actually robs them of their dignity by not encouraging them instead to work in order to receive the fair wage they deserve for the value of their work. For the government to take from the rich to give to the poor as a means for the poor to acquire equal fortunes perverts the notion of dignity by assuming that equality of fortune is the same as equality of dignity.
What I have just described is a person’s earthly dignity and fortune with respect to other human beings. His dignity and fortune with respect to God is different. Dignity with respect to God is not based on a person’s hard work that somehow benefits God and thus obligates Him to pay the person a fair and deserved wage. Rather, a person’s dignity results from God’s graciously pushing him inwardly into acknowledging his depraved moral condition and desperate legal condition so that he cries out to God for mercy, whereupon God grants him his ultimate fortune: forgiveness from eternal condemnation and the promise of moral perfection in eternal life. The person who thus appeals to God stands alone, independent of others, being his own master, realizing that because of his depraved moral condition he deserves eternal condemnation from God—nothing more and nothing less—and this despite all his hard work. Because each person innately has the necessary knowledge about God (yet is unwilling to act on it), he is entirely dependent on no one but God for mercy and forgiveness (see Romans 1:18-32). He needs nothing from any human being in order to obtain God’s forgiveness and eternal life. He needs only for God to change him miraculously and inwardly, thereby causing him to act on the innate knowledge of his depraved moral condition and desperate legal condition. Thus he finds his spiritual dignity and his ultimate fortune in being completely independent of other people and completely dependent on God.
Spiritual dignity and earthly dignity are inextricably tied together. Both can be defined as a person’s sense of being worthwhile, of being valuable, whereby he feels that he can respect himself and should be respected by others. The basis for that sense of value differs between earthly dignity and spiritual: one arises from a person’s hard work that benefits all and for which he earns a fair wage that allows him to make a living for himself and those immediately dependent on him; the other is based on a person’s understanding that God loves and accepts him, which arises from having been moved by God both to acknowledge his inherent moral depravity and to appeal to God for mercy since no amount of hard work can make a person worthy of God’s forgiveness and thus of escaping His eternal condemnation. But because spiritual dignity has its basis in God, who is the very source of morality and the definition of goodness, it provides the best foundation for the earthly dignity that comes from people treating each other with moral goodness.
Spiritual dignity and earthly dignity also share the common elements of freedom and encouragement to be independent of others (at least as much as one can in this life). Thus a political and social environment that most properly promotes earthly, human dignity will also best model spiritual dignity even though no one environment is better suited than another for God to perform His miraculous inward work. By definition, miracles do not need the aid of human beings, even religious aid, in order for them to exist. They only need God to perform them whenever and wherever He chooses.
Finally, God has designed human beings to pursue both spiritual dignity and earthly dignity. Both assume that maximum freedom and maximum independence from other human beings will also maximize a person’s humanness—both in this life and in the next.
Eternally speaking, all human beings are potentially equal in both dignity and fortune. But they can become equal in only one way: by God’s graciously changing them inwardly so that they acknowledge the inner depth of the problem of evil and the need for God’s unmerited mercy, thus causing them to be their own masters, to be independent of other human beings, and to stand alone before God as they appeal to Him for forgiveness. Furthermore, this is the only equality of fortune that is even practical and fitting to pursue. But such pursuit can only be encouraged through humble, verbal communication. It cannot be legislated, produced, or otherwise controlled by human beings since it is strictly a miraculous work of God. This means that it is not the government’s responsibility to provide an environment where the dignity which results in eternal life is possible because such dignity can exist in any environment since it comes about only by God’s independently working miraculously in people’s hearts.
We have seen, then, that equality of earthly dignity is attainable in this life, while equality of fortune is not because God has sovereignly designed different skill sets and circumstances for individuals. More importantly, however, we have seen that all human beings who appeal to God for eternal mercy are equal to one another in both dignity and fortune—eternally speaking. They have equally received God’s gracious inward activity that motivates them to appeal to God for His mercy, and they have equally received that mercy and God’s promise of eternal life.