There’s an image that has gone viral lately. It shows three kids, one tall, one medium, and one short. If they each stand on a box in order to look over the fence and watch the baseball game, that’s labeled “equality.” On the other side, the short guy gets two boxes and the medium guy gets one, which makes it easy for them all to see the baseball game.
Both conservatives and liberals will agree that it is both kind and sensible to give the individual who needs help the extra box or whatever is analogous to the box. But if we read into the picture a little bit, the differences become clear.
Let’s say it isn’t boxes, but seat cushions.
Three brothers know that dad is taking them to a ballgame. Two brothers remember how uncomfortable the concrete benches are, and use their allowance to buy seat cushions. They tell the third brother he should do the same thing, but he ignores them and spends his money elsewhere.
The brothers with the seat cushions try them out on the back porch. They discover that, although it’s better than sitting on bare concrete, it doesn’t help much. One brother decides he’s OK with that. The other brother decides to dip into his savings and buy an extra cushion, so he has two.
On game day, one brother carries his two cushions into the ball park. Another brother carries his cushion into the ball park. The third brother complains that he doesn’t have a cushion.
Now, if the brother with two cushions decides to give his brother the extra cushion, that is a nice, generous act of charity.
But what if Dad makes the brother who bought an extra cushion give the extra cushion to his brother? That makes the three brothers equal, but it certainly isn’t justice.
Both examples are oversimplified. The argument comes when you try to define “deserving.” What if it was three cousins who want seed money to start a business? One cousin has a trust fund he can cash in and do whatever he wants. Another is able to go to a bank, and with his parents as co-signers, he can get barely enough money to get his business off the ground. But the third cousin, even though he has worked hard through his youth and excelled at college, his parents are unable to help him (We don’t state why because it doesn’t matter why. That has nothing to do with him, it has to do with his parents.) He is unable to get a loan because he has no credit history.
What should the grandparents of these three cousins do? Say the grandparents are not well off. They have some money saved up, but would be in dire straits if they loaned the money and never got it back.
If they loan the money to the cousin who needs it the most, he will be able to get his business off the ground and prosper, but it is a risk. If they divide the money between the three cousins, the wealthy cousin wouldn’t be able to do much with such a small amount, and the poor cousin would not have enough to meet his business’ basic starting costs. The in-between cousin might be happy, thinking it was fair, and he could use the money to make some small improvement to his business.
Should the grandparents give the three cousins any money?
Which cousin should get the money?
Does it matter why the parents…the in between generation…were prosperous or not?
Does it matter whether the “poor” cousin is poor because his father was killed by a drunk driver and his mother confined to a wheelchair by that same drunk driver… or whether they’re poor because every pay day they went out to a bingo parlor and gambled until they barely had any grocery money left?
Does it matter whether the “rich” cousin is rich because his mother sold her self-built and highly successful dot-com at just the right time and made a ton of money…or whether they’re rich because his mother married a wealthy man twice her age and never had to work a day in her life?
How do you define who deserves to get money?
How do you decide who is supposed to provide this money?
And don’t get me started about why those kids in the picture are peeking over a fence to watch the ballgame instead of buying a ticket and going inside to sit on the uncomfortable concrete cheap seats.