The Matthew Principle and Inequality

Secular sociologists occasionally borrow from Scripture. Robert Merton did. He discovered in the realm of science a law of inequality. A law with a direct correlation with the words of Jesus in Matthew 25:29, “For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”  

Economists often call this the Pareto principle, but for you and I, in simple terms, we can call it The Matthew Principle.

The Pareto Principle (or Matthew Principle) is the idea that inequality is not natural. For example, 20% of salesmen produce 80% of the sales for any given company. And the top 20% of the the top 20% produce the 80% of the sales for that bracket. This applies to consumption as well as production. 20% of people who own shoes, for example, own 80% of the shoes. So, too, can this be applied to the products we sell. 20% of our products or services account for the majority of our actual sales.

One writer believes that this principle is precisely what Adam Smith wrote about in his defense of the free market. Why, then, do so many people think equal distribution is natural and just? Perry Marshall writes:

It is a law that almost nobody ever gets taught in school. In fact, our current educational system trains most of us to be blind to it, ignore it when we do see it, and even fight it as our enemy, instead of embrace it as our friend.

The Matthew Principle

This Matthew Effect, or Matthew Principal, was initially used to describe how fame and glory attracts more fame and glory in a disproportionate degree. For example, famous scientists continually get credit for the, sometimes better, work of non-famous scientists. The same holds true in broader academics; famous works are cited disproportionately, even if they are equal or even slightly inferior to obscure works.

Again, this is not the only sphere in which the Matthew Principle applies. It applies to virtually every sphere of reality.

For example, 20% of donors donate 80% of donations, while 80% of donors only donate about 20%. As again Perry Marshall explains:

Almost nobody reads simple election statistics that ’14 percent of the voters turned out at the polls in this election’ or ‘5 million people donated at least $5 to the election campaign’ and translates it into a vivid, meaningful picture of those people, all they way from casual interest to rabidly passionate and addicted.

Few people ever even consider that a tiny minority of the donors give almost all the money. And that the one million smallest donors gave less money than the top ten.

Men do not shop equally, work equally, or even give equally.

This law shows up even in technology; network hubs that initially have a greater number of links continue to grow at a multiplicative rate. The Matthew Effect is evident in the sphere of education as well. Those who struggle to read will cumulatively fall behind. Those who quickly learn to read well increase at a multiplicative rate.

Consequently, there is truth that initial failure leads to more failure, and initial success brings more success. Our pasts define us more than we care to admit.

In short, economic equality is a mythical unicorn. It is nowhere to be found. Not in nature, at any rate.

How God Views Inequality

The Creator does not want equality, not regarding equal distribution at least. It was the LORD’s sovereign pleasure to make Solomon the wisest and richest man. But notice, he already had wisdom. He had enough wisdom to ask for wisdom, instead of money or fame (2 Chron. 1). “To everyone who has, more will be given…”

Nevertheless, it should be noted that the top 1% of the economic spectrum are in the most volatile percentile. They will not “have” for long.

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Commentators explain it like a splash of water going down the drain. It is sort of like a concentrated amount of liquid that is constantly moving. Likewise, money is always a largely concentrated amount of money that is constantly on the move. As a Christian, we are not surprised by this. We know that to try to control wealth-movement is to try to play God.

For as the Scriptures teach, “But it is God who executes judgment, putting down one and lifting up another,” (Psalm 75:7).

It is true that Karl Marx noticed this effect in capitalism. However, it is not true that it only exists in capitalism. Fact: it exists in every economic system to date – it is deeply embedded in the fabric of nature. This is because God will always be in control of the economic system. And God does not desire economic equality. The results of the product of creativity will often favor the more creative. “For the laborer deserves his wages,” (Luke 10:7).

Admittedly, the precise meaning of Jesus’s words are not the most clear. But natural theology (from sociology, economics, etc.) tells us something.

What is clear is that the sovereign God does not care about equality the way we do.

Daniel Mason

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Daniel Mason studied theology in his undergrad, and currently pursuing graduate studies, with a particular interest in the Dutch statesman, Groen van Prinsterer. Daniel Mason is the co-founder of The Reformed Conservative.

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