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 Matthew Principle (that is, the Pareto Principle) is the idea that inequality is 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 to the idea 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.

The error of Communism consists in the denial of the ethical meaning of property and the illusion regarding the ethical value of the community of goods — but in particular consists–in the non-recognition of the leading of God in the distribution of goods. F.J. Stahl

Theology and The Matthew Principle

The Creator does not want equality, not regarding equal distribution at least. The Matthew Principle is seen even in the Old Testament. It was the LORD’s sovereign pleasure to make Solomon the wisest and richest man. But notice, Solomon already had wisdom, and this, given by God. 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).

As a quick aside, 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. Historically, Christian theologians have noticed this fact, and encoded it in catechisms.

Even the early church mostly rejected the idea of wealth redistribution. Material inequality is was understood to be natural. Hence, John Chrysostom wrote:

Should we look to kings and princes to put right the inequalities between rich and poor? Should we require soldiers to come and seize the rich person’s gold and distribute it among his destitute neighbors? Should we beg the emperor to impose a tax on the rich so great that it reduces them to the level of the poor and then to share the proceeds of that tax among everyone?

Equality imposed by force would achieve nothing, and do much harm. Those who combined both cruel hearts and sharp minds would soon find ways of making themselves rich again. Worse still, the rich whose gold was taken away would feel bitter and resentful; while the poor who received the gold from the hands of soldiers would feel no gratitude, because no generosity would have prompted the gift. Far from bringing moral benefit to society, it would actually do moral harm. Material justice cannot be accomplished by compulsion, a change of heart will not follow. The only way to achieve true justice is to change people’s hearts first—and then they will joyfully share their wealth.

To be sure, John Chrysostom does understand a kind of injustice, but this injustice is one that is not directed against man, but against God, as Thomas Chalmers, that great defender of the poor, would centuries later argue. However, how has the uneven distribution of material goods been seen by unbelieving philosophers? That has been more varied, ranging from Marx, who saw The Matthew Principle as not so much a principle or fact of reality, but a result of human choice, an unfair commercial contract, as it were. Thus Marx, on the one hand, to Proudhon and the anarchists, on the other, who also critiqued inequality, but again, so the Matthew Principle as a result of human choice, and not the working out of natural law.

In this regard, Christian thinkers stand out. F.J. Stahl, a Lutheran legal theorist in the 1800s, challenged all theories of material and economic equality, before The Matthew Principle was discovered:

The error of Communism consists in the denial of the ethical meaning of property and the illusion regarding the ethical value of the community of goods — but in particular consists–in the non-recognition of the leading of God in the distribution of goods.

The chief problem is the rejection of the idea that it is God who distributes; it is the LORD who lifts up and casts down, the LORD who brings dark and light, rain or shine, and all as He sees fit. The idea that society is the source of the distribution of goods is the deification of society. This is why socialist countries always have some of the highest wealth disparities; the masses must worship it’s god.

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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