Washington. -- Amonk asks a superior if it is permissible to smoke while praying. The superior says certainly not. Next day the monk asks the superior if it is permissible to pray while smoking. That, says the superior, is not merely permissible, it is admirable. The moral of the story is that much depends on how a thing is presented.
Consider, for example, this lead paragraph from a New York Times news story: "New studies on the growing concentration of American wealth and income challenge a cherished part of the country's self-image: They show that rather than being an egalitarian society, the United States has become the most economically stratified of industrial nations."
But the same data could be reported as demonstrating that the United States, more than any other industrial nation, values equality, sensibly understood. And as demonstrating that this nation's distribution of wealth is an incentive to rational behavior in contemporary economic conditions.
The studies purport to show that the wealthiest 1 percent and wealthiest 20 percent of American households have a larger portion of the nation's wealth than they used to have, and a larger portion than the wealthiest households in other industrial nations have. Furthermore, the least wealthy 20 percent of Americans have a smaller portion of the nation's wealth than the bottom 20 percent have in other industrial nations.
Now, let's assume the data are accurate, although income and wealth statistics involve judgments that can skew comparisons with other eras and nations. However, the data, even if accurate, need not compel the essentially political judgment expressed in the Times paragraph above.
Note the word "egalitarian." What the country's self-image actually celebrates is broad if imperfect equal opportunity for striving -- for the pursuit of happiness. Americans have never been egalitarian in emphasizing equality of outcomes.
Concerning that, elsewhere in the Times story there occurs this essentially political assessment: "Most economists believe that wealth and income are more concentrated in the United States than in Japan. But while data show that wealth is more equitably distributed in Japan, the government there has not released enough detailed information to make statistical comparisons possible."
Note the use of the phrase "more equitably" as synonymous with "more equally." That peculiar usage flows from an idea that Americans have generally considered peculiar -- the idea that equality of condition is a key component of social justice. A society that values individualism, enterprise and a market economy is neither surprised nor scandalized when the unequal distribution of marketable skills produces large disparities in the distribution of wealth.
This does not mean that social justice must be defined as whatever distribution of wealth the market produces. But it does mean that there is a presumption in favor of respecting the market's version of distributive justice. Certainly there is today no prima facie case against the moral acceptability of increasingly large disparities of wealth.
This century's experience with government attempts to use progressive taxation to influence the distribution of income suggest the weakness of that instrument and the primacy of social and cultural forces in determining the distribution of wealth.
Consider three things that might conduce to a smaller gap between the most and least affluent households. Stopping immigration would reduce downward pressure on wages. A stock-market crash would devalue the portfolios of the wealthy. And curtailing access to college and postgraduate education would limit the disparities in the marketable skills that increasingly account for income disparities.
But to suggest such "solutions" is to understand that the problem of increasing inequalities of wealth is not a problem we will pay just any price to remedy, and may not be a problem at all. In an increasingly knowledge-based economy, education disparities drive income disparities, which are incentives for the rising generation to take education seriously as a decisive shaper of individuals' destinies.
In today's deregulated global economy, with highly mobile capital and an abundance of cheap labor, the long-term prosperity of an advanced nation is a function of a high rate of savings -- the deferral of gratification that makes possible high rates of investment in capital, research and development and education. All these forms of social capital are good for society as a whole and are encouraged by high rewards for those who accept the discipline.
That is why promoting more equal distribution of wealth might not be essential to, or even compatible with, promoting a more equitable society. And why increasingly unequal social rewards can conduce to a more truly egalitarian society, one that offers upward mobility equally to all who accept its rewarding disciplines.
9- George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.